“Where oil is first found is, in the final analysis, in the minds of men.”
Born in 1885, this famous proclamation from Wallace E. Pratt, the so-called “geologist’s geologist,” remains in heavy circulation today. It is a testament to the titanic influence of this slight-bodied and almost centenarian man, named among the Rockefellers and Reagans of the world as one of the 100 most influential people of the “petroleum century,” and dubbed the “Grand Old Man of Exploration” at Tulsa’s International Petroleum Exposition.
For most, being the first recipient of the coveted AAPG Sidney Powers Medal for achievement in petroleum geology (Pratt was awarded the medal in 1945), and the recipient of the James Forman Kemp medal (as presented by Dwight D. Eisenhower) would be the absolute pinnacle of a career for Pratt, they were but two achievements among a multitude of others, including the largest single oil and gas lease ever purchased in the United States.
Pratt’s success as a petroleum geologist owed much to his skillful fusion of talents and interests: he was a businessman, a philosopher, and (last, but not least) a man with an uncanny knack for predicting future events – he saw the potential for producing synthetic fuels from coal as early as 1927, and was discussing the need for oil conservation, energy independence, and even solar energy some 60 years before these concepts became the cause célèbre of the political establishment.
Pratt’s infectious optimism was also central to his success: he felt that mental inflexibility was the greatest hurdle to overcome in the finding of oil, and that geologists should assume a given area to be productive until determined otherwise. This refusal to accept any unfavorable situation as a “given” helped him in many other scenarios: for example, when geophysical instruments were being manufactured only in Germany, Pratt set out to build the instruments domestically with his personal team at the Humble Oil & Refining Company.
The aforementioned company hired Pratt in 1918 as its first chief geologist, a decision that they would not regret. At Humble, Pratt pioneered the use of micropaleontology in oil exploration, maximized the use of oil scouts, and began an ambitious leasing program. As Humble came under the wing of Standard Oil (itself eventually morphing into Exxon), Pratt was instrumental in implementing policies that improved reservoir discovery, eliminated natural gas flaring, and allowed wide spacing for wells. Pratt’s many novel ideas were compressed into seminal texts such as Toward a Philosophy of Oil Finding, a paper which is still considered as valid today as it was when written in 1951.
Wallace Pratt led a rich personal life in addition to his accumulation of professional accolades, with a legacy inherited by 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He died in 1981.
The Wallace E. Pratt Memorial Grant is awarded annually to a deserving geoscience graduate student through the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Grants-in-Aid Program, and is endowed by the AAPG Foundation with a generous contribution from Dorothy Carsey Sumner.