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John Small 1931-2017

lkjhgGlobal oil & gas explorer who helped victims of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Dr John Small Jr was born on 28 May in Connecticut USA, and died at his UK home on 29 May 2017, 86 years and one day later. He spent over 40 years in the oil & gas business with GSI, Chevron, Norsk-Hydro, IEDC and KUFPEC.

John went to MIT in 1948 to study Civil Engineering, but, in his own words was ready for disaster with lathes or drills. He switched to Geology and opted for oil & gas after a traumatic trip down a coal mine and a pleasant summer job with a seismic crew in Louisiana.

Picture:  John Small Jr at the Russian Ministry of Precious Stones, 1990

He graduated in 1952 with a diploma in one hand and a commission for the Korean War in the other. He was shipped to Japan with the Corps of Engineers for pre-combat training, during which he visited Hiroshima and helped build a stage for Marilyn Monroe, only to be sent on manoeuvres before her show.  John spent two years on the front line in Korea, and was awarded a Bronze Star.  He subsequently took a teaching fellowship at Colorado University which led to a Ph D some years later.

In 1956, John went to work for Chevron in Colombia for $325 per month as a Field Geologist. He mapped out the Rio Zulia anticline on which an oilfield was subsequently found. He also met and married his first wife, Marta, and moved to Ecuador. It was here, with assistance from Chevron & Colorado University, he commenced his PhD on the Petroleum Geology of SW Ecuador.  In subsequent years with Chevron, John had postings in New Orleans, Trinidad, West Texas, The Hague, Spain & California.


He joined Norsk Hydro in Oslo, just as they were becoming an Operator. John headed the team that acquired acreage in the Norwegian Fourth Round, including three licenses that contained billion-barrel fields. It was here he met and married his second wife, Elisabeth.

When Norsk-Hydro gave John an ultimatum – become Norwegian or leave - John left and joined a company called IEDC in the UK, a company backed by the World Bank that wanted to help developing countries. The 1986 oil-price crash ended its aspirations.

IEDC was absorbed into a company called KUFPEC and John moved to Kuwait. He was on vacation when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990. The company opened a London office and John persuaded the Kuwaitis to pay funds into employee accounts, saving many a mortgage and marriage.

He grew a beard to protest the invasion and commuted to an office near Victoria. When hostages were released from Kuwait, he met them off the plane at Gatwick. The Press looked at those exiting the arrivals gate, bypassed the hostages and asked John “How does it feel to be free?”  John retired to the UK after a final posting in Dubai. By this time, he’d visited at least 64 countries and lived in 11 for more than a year.


His life now settled into a pattern - wintering in the UK, and spending summers in Woodstock.  Ten years ago he was diagnosed with cancer of the ear and he endured various treatments ever since. Earlier, there had been concerns over his heart and more recently a broken hip. If these affected his spirit, it didn’t show and he remained good-humoured, stoic and defiant of all that was thrown at him.

A gentle man, with a sociable nature.  Liberal in politics, a book lover, an aficionado of TV detective series, with an encyclopedic memory for geology, proud of the USA, prone to fall asleep instantly (even in company), he completed the London-Brighton cycle ride more than half a dozen times, yet owned a book called How to Exercise Without Moving a Muscle and spent much of his time finessing these exercises.

In the UK he is survived by his wife Elisabeth, daughter Amy and two grandsons; and in the USA, by three children from his first marriage, a grand-daughter and his sister.

By Mike McMurtry