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Roughing it

Spindletop Nina Morgan on the good old days in the oil industry

Geoscientist 19.6 June 2009

Although the first commercial oil well was drilled in 1859, it wasn't until 1910 that oil companies began to employ geologists routinely. In those early days, a career in oil exploration was not for the faint-hearted or the physically unfit. But it certainly suited some. On such was Dr J V Harrison who joined the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – the forerunner of BP – as a geologist in 1918. After 20 years of exploration work for the Company in Honduras, Mexico, British North Borneo, Peru, Jamaica, Venezuela, Trinidad and Columbia as well as in Persia (Iran), Harrison resigned in 1938 to become a lecturer in geology at Oxford University. His time with Anglo-Persian was nothing if not challenging.

In his 1961 Lyell Medal acceptance speech Harrison recalled that "I was lucky in my colleagues of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, who found exploration as exciting as I did." 'Exciting' is something of an understatement. In his day exploration fieldwork was carried out on foot and horseback, and geologists camped out under the stars while mapping vast swathes of unexplored territory in their search for oil seeps, anticlines, and other promising leads. He and his colleagues regarded office and laboratory work as soft options.

In the same speech, Harrison describes 'strolling' about the Zagros Mountains in Iran with a colleague for nearly eight years while "we mapped upon the clean paper on our plane-tables the topography and geology of some 60,000 square miles of south-west Iran as we saw it on the ground." No wonder that the number of mules who died in Harrison's service became legendary among the Anglo-Persian staff…

Note on sources

Sources for this vignette include: Harrison's acceptance speech on receipt of the Lyell medal in 1961; an anonymous obituary of Dr J.V. Harrison that appeared in The Times on 3 August 1972; and an address by Professor E.A. Vincent read at the Memorial Service for Dr J.V. Harrision held in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 19 November 1972.

  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information visit the HOGG website at:

* Nina Morgan is a science writer living in Oxfordshire.