And a beautiful relationship

Memoir a Lasting Tribute

James Lee Wilson
James Lee Wilson

For Del Wilson, seeing the publication of AAPG Memoir 98, “The Great American Carbonate Bank: The Geology and Economic Resources of the Cambrian-Ordovician Sauk Megasequence of Laurentia,” was a further tribute to her late husband, renowned carbonate sedimentologist, paleontologist and educator James Lee Wilson – and a reminder of the partnership they shared during their 58 years of marriage.

The book was published earlier this year and dedicated to Jim Wilson, but its beginnings go back to 1997, when Jim and (future executive director) Rick Fritz first conceived of the idea for the volume as they were completing a consulting project on the Ordovician Arbuckle Group of the U.S. midcontinent.

The seeds of Jim Wilson’s interests in the Sauk Megasequence, however, were planted long before.

Del Wilson and AAPG Memoir 98.
Del Wilson and AAPG Memoir 98.

His fascination with Cambrian carbonates began during his research on Cambrian and Ordovician trilobites of the Marathon region, Texas, for his master’s thesis at the University of Texas, Austin (1942), and during his doctorate dissertation on Cambrian stratigraphy of the Appalachians at Yale University (1949).

Jim Wilson had several illustrious careers:

  • He was a member and director of Shell Oil Company’s pioneering carbonate research group in the 1950s and ‘60s.
  • In 1966 he moved from industry to Rice University in Houston, where he was professor of geology until 1979, 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 the University of Michigan, where he taught until 1986, retiring as professor emeritus.

After retiring from the University of Michigan he consulted for many years for various petroleum companies.

His work earned him many accolades, including the highest recognition from AAPG and SEPM (Sidney Powers Medal in 2002 and Twenhofel Medal in 1990, respectively). He also served as SEPM president from 1975-76 and received AAPG’s Distinguished Educator Award in 1995.

Because of his interest in young scientists, Jim and SEPM established the Wilson Award to honor an early years geoscientist.

But he may be best known for his 1975 book, Carbonate Facies in Geologic History, in which he synthesized a considerable amount of data on carbonate facies and depositional environments through time, culminating in generalizations and carbonate facies zonations that are still widely applied today.

Throughout his career, behind the scenes was his wife and partner, Del. When asked how he sustained such a long and fruitful career his answer was always the same: “Del.”

Throughout their marriage she worked alongside her husband – typing and retyping, editing manuscripts, answering the phone, keeping the books, chauffeuring him to and from the field, acting as camp cook and nurse and, while Jim was a professor at Rice University, even cutting his students’ hair for free – all while keeping house, moving often and raising three boys.

Jim Wilson once laughingly told colleagues that he was a little nervous about having traveled alone to a consulting job because “anytime I leave Del behind, she goes out and buys a new car.”

One cold day in 2001, while Rick Fritz was driving through the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma on his way to Dallas, he spotted Jim measuring an outcrop. When Fritz stopped to talk, Jim said that he “just wanted to make sure he understood the cycles in this section of the Arbuckle Group” – a reflection of Jim’s geological curiosity and love of geology.

As Fritz drove on, a bit farther down the highway he spotted Del, roadside, reading comfortably in a shiny new vehicle.


Upon publication of AAPG Memoir 98, the editors of the volume sent a copy to Del, inscribed inside with their well wishes, recognizing her important contribution to Jim’s career and scientific accomplishments.

It wasn’t a new car, but it was another recognition and reminder of the loving and successful relationship and partnership that Jim and Del Wilson shared for 58 years.

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