“Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.”—Wallace E. Pratt
These are the astute words of a man that most oil and gas industry professionals would consider one of the forefathers of petroleum geology. Connecting the relationship between earth and mind, this famous proclamation was just one of many ideas that Wallace Pratt offered to those in search of oil.
Born in 1885, and raised in Phillipsburg, Kan., Pratt’s father urged him to study law or banking. But much to his father’s dismay, an 18-year-old Pratt left for college at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, to study geology. He did so with no more than the $142 he had earned as a farmhand the year prior.
In 1908, Pratt earned his AB and BS degrees, then his MA degree in 1909. Just five years later, he was awarded an Engineer of Mines in Geology degree, as well.
Pratt took his first geologist position with the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs, in the Division of Mines of the Bureau of Science of the government of the Philippines in Manila, then moved back to the U.S. to work for the Producers Oil Company.
It wasn’t until he joined Humble Oil and Refining Co., a small, Houston-based oil company, which later became Exxon Company U.S.A., that Pratt really began to solidify the worth of his talent within the industry. Under Pratt’s guidance as chief geologist, Humble Oil led the way in the application of scientific principles to finding oil. Pratt built a team of geologists over the course of his time at Humble Oil, more than doubling the amount of oil that the company was producing.
Pratt also had built quite a reputation for his inimitable ability to predict the location of large reserves. In 1921, he lived up to that reputation when, despite what other experts believed, Pratt convinced his team that there was an abundance of productive oil sands west of a lease block in Mexia, not to the east. His projection was corroborated when 175 of the first 180 wells drilled on the land produced oil. He was recognized for these monumental achievements when he was elected to Humble’s board of directors, and eventually to V.P. of the company.
He also persuaded the company to lease oil and gas rights on the King Ranch, at a time when South Texas was considered useless to the oil and gas industry. Many were surprised, however, when once again, Pratt’s forecast proved accurate. By 1971, the ranch was the site of the largest natural gas processing plant worldwide, and had approximately 600 producing wells. Additionally, he predicted the discovery of oil deposits on the North Slope of Alaska.
Not only a successful oilman, Pratt was also an active environmentalist. It is said that he discussed the use of solar energy before the idea was given significant consideration. He also spurred establishment of Guadalupe Mountains National Park on 5,632 acres of land that he acquired in the 1920s. He lived on the land with his second wife until he deeded it to the National Park Service in 1961.
The park was not the only legacy left behind when Pratt passed away on Christmas day 1981, at the age of 96. He had been the recipient of myriad of awards and professional honors throughout his lifetime, including his service as president of the AAPG and his induction into the Permian Basin Hall of Fame.
According to those who knew him, Pratt was not only brilliant and passionate, he was reverent and unassuming. Many times, he expressed appreciation for his professional accomplishments. He said, “It has been my marvelous good fortune that my avocation has been my vocation.”
- The American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, V. 66, No. 9 (September 1982), P. 1412-1422.
- Martin Donell Kohout, “PRATT, WALLACE EVERETTE,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpr21), accessed August 28, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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