At the University of Adelaide, which he entered in 1946, Brian Skinner studied chemistry, physics, and geology. He later earned his PhD in geophysics at Harvard University.
After teaching crystallography at the University of Adelaide he returned to the United States as a research scientist at the United States Geological Survey, where he studied the chemistry of mineral deposits and volcanic gases, and became involved in scientific planning for the Lunar Landing program. In 1966 he moved to Yale University, where he accepted the Eugene Higgins Chair in Geology and Geophysics. He worked on the returned Moon rocks, and expanded the geographic range of his studies of mineral deposits so that he and his students eventually conducted research on all continents and numerous oceanic islands.
Although Brian Skinner is probably best known for his work on mineral deposits, his own evaluation is that his textbooks on physical geology and earth system science have been of prime importance, because through them he has been privileged to teach many students who have risen to high places in research, industry, and government.