The great state of Texas has an illustrious
history in the oil industry, not only as a producer of giant oil
and gas fields but also as the birthplace of an amazing list of
giants in the profession of petroleum geology. Many of these have
been recognized by AAPG over the years.
Lee Wilson, whose long career as a world-class paleontologist, stratigrapher
and sedimentologist reflects a continuous flow of contributions
to the science and profession of petroleum geology, is a prime example
of this rich heritage.
As the 2002 recipient of the Sidney Powers Medal,
AAPG's highest award, Wilson will be honored by colleagues from
Texas and around the world at this year's annual meeting in Houston.
The award will be presented as part of the opening
ceremony at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 10, in the George R. Brown Convention
The Sidney Powers Medal not only honors a brilliant
career spent in science and education, it also caps a long, distinguished
relationship between Wilson and AAPG.
Wilson was named an Honorary Member of AAPG in 1987
and received the Distinguished Educator Award in 1995. He has served
on AAPG's Advisory Council, as an Associate Editor and in the House
of Delegates, as well as on various committees and as an author
and speaker. He was president of SEPM for 1975-76 and received that
society's Twenhofel Award in 1990.
SEPM has since established the Wilson Award in his
As a member of the famous Shell Oil research group
of the 1950s and '60s, Wilson spent three years in the Netherlands
working on the Mesozoic geology of the Middle East at the time many
of the great oil fields were being defined.
His academic career has taken him to all four sides
of the United States, beginning with his doctoral studies at Yale
University. He has taught full or part time at:
- The University of Texas.
- Rice University.
- The University of Houston.
- The University of Miami.
- The University of Calgary.
- The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
- He also spent a year in 1972-73 as a Fulbright research scholar
and visiting professor at the Paleontological Institute, Munich,
He was professor of geology at Rice from 1966-79,
serving as chairman of the department of geology from 1974-77. In
1972 while at Rice he was appointed to the university's Harry Carothers
Wiess Chair of Geology.
In 1979 he accepted a professorship at Michigan,
where he taught until 1986 when he retired as a professor emeritus.
He now lives in New Braunfels, Texas, and is back
at Rice as an adjunct professor.
Wilson's reaction to being selected as a Powers medalist
was -- predictably to those who know him -- one of humble surprise.
"This is something quite unexpected," he said. "I
suppose because of it being such a surprise, that makes it all the
"I feel extremely honored to be associated with the
Sidney Powers award and all those accomplished geoscientists who
have been honored before," he added, "but I'm sure I don't measure
up to such an elite group."
But, of course, his achievements belie his modesty.
His nominators also disagree, citing far-ranging contributions in
research, academia and publications.
As just one example of that, his book, Carbonate
Facies in Geologic History, published in 1975, is still known in
the profession as "the Carbonate Bible."
Former colleague Robert N. Ginsburg, professor of
marine geology, University of Miami, wrote:
"Wilson's contributions to Paleozoic stratigraphy
are broad ranging and innovative. Early in his career the focus
was on Cambrian and Ordovician strata, and especially on the use
of guide fossils for dating and environmental interpretation. These
works extended from outcrops in the Appalachians to Texas, and culminated
in a review of Cambrian biostratigraphy of North America."
He described Wilson's work on the stratigraphy of
the Williston Basin as "pioneering" and credited his analysis of
the basin for helping spark industry interest in not only the Williston,
but in basin analysis itself.
"A third area of his stratigraphic contributions
has been and still is the Cretaceous of Texas and Mexico," he continued.
"He published seminal works on lithostratigraphy and tectonic control
on sedimentation and organized and edited a major compilation of
Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous deposits.
"Wilson has long been a leader in the sedimentology
of carbonates and as with his works on stratigraphy, his contributions
have been wide-ranging and fundamental."
Ginsburg said that Wilson:
- "Laid the groundwork for understanding cycles of carbonates
and evaporites of the Williston Basin."
- "Pioneered research on carbonate microfacies and cycles in
the Carboniferous of Texas and New Mexico."
- Was a leader in developing an understanding of Late Paleozoic
In terms of publications, Ginsburg cited both Wilson's
book on carbonates and his widely used facies zonation.
"The book is another example of his broad gauge approach
to carbonate geology and is widely used both in academia and industry,"
he said. "The zonation scheme, which he pioneered, is the bread-and-butter
of exploration in carbonates and the basic guide for environmental
Ask Wilson himself to comment on his life's work,
however, and he'll shift the spotlight to co-workers on various
projects and how exciting it was to be a part of it.
And it still is. After a career of some 50 or 60
years, geology for Jim Wilson clearly remains exciting and fun.
At 81 he is in much demand as a consultant and lecturer. He finished
work on the Atlas of the Geology of Northern Mexico a year and a
half ago. His main current project, he said, is a report with Cliff
Jordan on Mexico's Burgos Basin.
"The Burgos is really a continuation of the South
Texas Embayment, an old gas basin that has been neglected on both
sides of the river," he said.
The report will be coming out this year.
Knowing What He Wanted
Talking to Wilson, one realizes that indeed his work
will go on forever. That suggests another question:
When and where exactly did it all begin?
As a student he attended Rice and the University
of Texas, Austin, where he received his bachelor's and master's
degrees in 1942 and 1944. After serving two years in the U.S. Army
he studied at Yale, earning his doctorate in 1949.
in costume as "Jungle Jim," loading his brain with facts at the
beach or just getting ready to teach his class, geology always dominated
Actually, his studies in geology began years earlier
-- not very long after 1920, when he was born, as his friend Grover
Murrary pointed out, "on Cretaceous limestone in Waxahachie, Texas."
"I was pretty young -- probably eight or 10 years
old -- when I first became interested in geology, and fossils specifically,"
"My parents moved to Houston when I was still small.
We had a neighbor there, a Dr. Wolfe, who was the chief geologist
for Texas Gulf Sulphur Co.," he said. "One day he brought over a
rock and a hammer and told me to take the hammer and break the rock
to see what was inside.
"So I did, and found a fossil. He explained what
it was, and from that moment I was hooked.
"When I was a boy I spent summers with my grandparents
in Austin. They lived near Shoal's Creek, which is a mostly dry
creek bed and very fossiliferous. I spent every minute I could down
there digging and poking around, looking for ammonites especially.
"There I was fortunate enough to meet Gordon Damon,
who dated my aunt and was a professor of geology at the University
of Texas. He helped me along, as I began seriously collecting and
identifying fossils, and he gave me some real geological literature.
"I became fascinated by it and by the age of 13 or
14 I knew absolutely that I wanted to be a professor of geology."
That shaped his entire education.
"I was so intent on geology that I didn't get as
well-rounded an education as I should have," Wilson said. "I missed
physics, for example, because I knew so far in advance what I wanted
to do. I wanted to take only geology courses."
Secret of His Success
Jim and his wife of 58 years,
Del, whom he credits with being a big part of his successful career.
Then there is the question of how he has been able
to sustain such a long and fruitful career. In this instance the
answer is "clear as a Del Wilson."
Jim's wife of 58 years, Del is a bundle of perpetual
energy who has been a valuable partner in his success.
Throughout their marriage she has worked alongside
her husband -- typing and retyping, editing manuscripts, answering
the phone, keeping the books, chauffeuring to and from the field,
acting as camp cook and nurse and, while at Rice, even cutting his
students' hair for free -- all while keeping house, moving often
and raising three boys.
"I met Jim in Billings, Mont., when I was working
in the office of an eye doctor and he was there working for Carter
Oil," she said. "This was during the war of course, so we had a
whirlwind courtship. We met at the end of January and married in
When they first started going out, she noticed that
he carried a pocketful of little rocks all the time.
"Well, that's a little odd, I thought to myself,"
she said. "But soon I learned that the rocks were fossils, and I
came to appreciate them."
She also learned to expect the unexpected -- like
having to sleep on a bed of pine boughs on their "second honeymoon"
trip, and traveling by bus in Mexico with only a crate of chickens
for a seat.
Then, when their first son, James Lee Jr., was born,
Jim nicknamed him "Dokie."
"Everybody thought he was calling him after Doak
Walker, who was SMU's talented quarterback at the time," Del said.
"But actually he had named him after Dokimocephalus Extensus, a
species of trilobite that has an odd-shaped head."
Although the baby's head rounded out eventually,
the nickname stuck, she said.
And Del has stuck with Jim over the years, assisting
in any and every way she could think to help -- and taking charge
of those things a preoccupied professor might let slip. Since she
is the chauffeur, she takes care of the car and decides when it's
time to trade up.
Wilson once laughingly told a client that he was
a little nervous about having traveled alone to a consulting job
because "anytime I leave her behind, she goes out and buys a new
A few weeks later the client, driving from Tulsa
to Dallas, spotted Wilson out measuring an outcrop in the Arbuckle
A hundred yards farther down the highway he spotted
the unsinkable Del, roadside, reading comfortably in a shiny new