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Born in Phillipsburg, Kansas, March 15, 1885, Pratt began his career in geology as an assistant with the Kansas Geological Survey shortly after he graduated from the University of Kansas in 1907 with a bachelor's degree.
From 1909 to 1916, he worked in Philippines, becoming chief of the Division of Mines there in 1912. He returned to the U.S. in 1916, and in 1918 joined Humble Oil & Refining Co. as the company's first geologist. Prior to that time the company had treated the search for oil as largely a hit or miss operation without scientific exploration. But Pratt, joined by 10 more geologists during 1918–19, proved that geology was an important factor in finding oil.
Among the most notable early contributions made by Pratt and his staff were geological studies that led to the correct interpretation of the structure of the huge Mexia field, discovered in October 1920 in East Texas. On the basis of these studies, Humble bought leases on the structure and developed substantial reserves and production. This work and leasing of large amounts of land that proved productive in Powell, Texas, in 1923 firmly established Humble as an oil producer.
Pratt also played a prominent role in the scientific progress of his profession. As early as 1922, others were using geophysical instruments experimentally on the Texas Gulf Coast as a new method for finding salt domes. After studying results from this work, Pratt concluded that Humble should use geophysical instruments and methods. In line with these recommendations, in 1924, Humble set up a geophysics group and established a shop in Houston for geophysics research and development, and the manufacture of a refraction seismograph recording in the field.
Pratt served as Humble's chief geologist and later director, and vice president. In 1937 he joined Standard Oil Co. (Humble's parent firm in New Jersey), once again rising to director, executive committee member, and finally, vice president, a position he held until he retired from the company in 1945.
At the University of Kansas, Pratt gave a lecture "Oil in the Earth", where he speculated that the total amount of oil in the United States was 100 billion barrels.
After retirement Pratt served on the National Security Resources Board for two years and began a long career as a consultant geologist. Pratt wrote more than 100 geological papers during his lifetime, including Oil in the Earth, one of the most widely read books in his profession. An often repeated quote from this book is, "Gold is where you find it, according to an old adage, but judging from the record of our experience, oil must be sought first of all in our minds."
One of the founders of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Pratt was elected fourth president of the association in 1920. He was the first recipient of the AAPG's Sidney Powers Memorial Award, awarded in 1945. In 1972 he received the AAPG's Human Needs Award. He also received the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers' Anthony F. Lucas Medal in 1948, and the American Petroleum Institute's Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 1954. He was director of API for many years. Pratt was inducted into the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum's Hall of Fame in 1969 and was named Grand Old Man of Exploration in 1976 by directors of the International Petroleum Exposition.
Most notably though, Wallace E. Pratt donated 5,632 acres (23 km²), which included McKittrick Canyon, to the National Park Service, forming the core of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This land includes his former homes: Pratt Cabin, open to the public, and Ship On The Desert, a home built to resemble an oil tanker, now used as a ranger station.
Wallace E. Pratt, pioneer U.S. exploration geologist, died December 25, 1981 in his Tucson, Arizona home. He was 96.
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- New York Times, Letters to the editor, October 3, 1943, page 101
- This information largely copied from National Park Service Guadalupe Mountains National Park web site.