Duncan Anderson McNaughton was born in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada in 1910, the only child of a teacher and a civil engineer. He was raised in British Columbia, but traveled to Los Angeles with plans to study medicine at the University of Southern California. During his second year of pre-med studies, he changed his major to geology.
While at USC, he participated in track and field, and was selected to represent Canada in the high jump event during the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The contest had an exciting finish with only Duncan and a USC teammate remaining. When neither jumper could clear the bar, the bar was lowered and Duncan won the gold medal. He was the first non-American to win this event in the modern games and he remained Canada’s only gold medal winner in track and field events for many years.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in geology, he continued his academic studies at California Institute of Technology, earning a master’s degree in 1935. His geological career began as a party chief in the frontier areas of northern British Columbia with the Canadian Geological Survey.
In 1939, he went to work with the Texas Company, exploring for oil in South America. At the start of World War II, he returned to Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying 57 missions over enemy territory. He received Canada’s Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. For both awards, he was cited for his display of fortitude, courage and devotion to duty.
When the War ended, he returned to USC for doctoral studies and a position as assistant professor of geology. He found teaching very rewarding. In the mid-1940s, oil was discovered in fractured basement rocks underlying petroliferous sediments in several California basins. The management of Gulf Oil was persuaded that these “unusual” oil occurrences merited detailed examination. Duncan was recommended for this research work, which became the topic for his thesis, and ultimately, the foundation of his career as a petroleum geologist.
For many years, the focus of his work was in Australia, where he recommended that his client, Magellan Petroleum Corporation, take an interest in the Amadeus basin of Central Australia. This was a remote and fascinating area containing many huge surface anticlines. He carried out many fracture studies in this region. After several years of exploration, part of the area was farmedout and drilling commenced. The well on the third structure, Mereenie, came in the old fashioned way – it blew out. The basin became an important producing province. Ultimately his work led Magellan to drill a slanted hole in the Palm Valley field with spectacular results: possibly the largest flow of gas encountered onshore in Australia.
Throughout his career, Duncan was active in many professional organizations. He served AAPG in various capacities, including a term as vice-president. He received honorary membership from AAPG and from the Dallas Geological Society. Duncan McNaughton’s remarkable life and career in petroleum geology reflected his great curiosity and intelligence. In addition to his keen sense of humor, he was always interested in the next analytical question to consider. He died at his home in Austin, Texas on January 15, 1998 at the age of 87.
The Duncan A. McNaughton Memorial Grant is awarded annually to a deserving graduate student through the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Grants-in-Aid program, and is endowed with generous contributions by Magellan Petroleum Corporation and Megellan Petroleum Australia Ltd. to the AAPG Foundation.