Everette Lee DeGolyer, geophysicist and petroleum geologist, was born in a sod house near Greensburg, Kansas, on October 9, 1886, to John William and Narcissa Kagy (Huddle) DeGolyer. His father, interested in mineral prospecting, moved the family to the lead and zinc districts of Joplin, Missouri, where DeGolyer attended public schools. Attracted by the 1901 land openings in Oklahoma, they moved to Norman, where DeGolyer finished high school at the University of Oklahoma preparatory school. In 1906 he entered the university to study mining engineering. During the summers of 1906 through 1909 he worked first as a cook and then as a field assistant for the United States Geological Survey in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana, and favorably impressed the chief geologist, C. Willard Hayes. In 1909, as chief geologist of the Mexican Eagle Oil Company (El Águila) in Tampico, Hayes hired DeGolyer to head the exploration staff, and the next year DeGolyer located the Potrero del Llano No. 4 well in the Mexican Golden Lane, one of the world's largest fields, which produced more than 110,000 barrels a day. DeGolyer returned to Oklahoma in 1910, married Nell Virginia Goodrich (see DEGOLYER, NELL VIRGINIA GOODRICH) on June 10 of that year, and received his B.A. from the University of Oklahoma in 1911. After another stint in Mexico, during which he located the second big Mexican field, Las Naranjas, he returned by 1914 to Oklahoma to run his own consulting office.
In 1916 DeGolyer moved his office to New York but maintained ties with El Águila and its owner, Lord Cowdray, as a consultant. He negotiated the sale of the company to the Royal Dutch Shell Company in 1918. Cowdray then commissioned him to organize the Amerada Petroleum Corporation for exploration in the United States and Canada and the Rycade Oil Company for exploration of salt-dome lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico. DeGolyer served as vice president and general manager of Amerada, then in 1926 became president and general manager of the corporation and its affiliates, Amerada Corporation and Amerada Refining Corporation. He was chairman of the board of all three companies from 1929 to 1932. With Rycade he served as vice president and general manager (1923–26) and president and general manager (1926–41). Through Rycade, he in 1922 instigated a torsion balance survey at the Spindletop oilfield, the first geophysical survey of an oilfield in the United States, and at Nash, Texas, Rycade in 1924 located what became the first oilfield discovered by geophysical methods. In May 1925 DeGolyer organized a subsidiary of Amerada, the Geophysical Research Corporation, which located a record eleven Gulf Coast salt domes in nine crew months and perfected a reflection seismograph that has become the principal tool for geophysical oil exploration worldwide. This technology inaugurated the modern age of oil exploration with the 1930 discovery of the Edwards oilfield in Oklahoma by reflection survey.
In 1932 DeGolyer resigned from all Amerada enterprises. He then moved to Dallas and initiated a number of prospecting concerns, such as Atlatl Royalty Corporation (1932, sold in 1950), the Felmont Corporation (1934), and, with John Clarence (Karch) Karcher and Eugene B. McDermott, Geophysical Service, Incorporated, a seismic contracting company. He also established Core Laboratories, Incorporated (1932), and Isotopes, Incorporated (1956), to adapt radioactive isotopes to industrial use. He reorganized his consulting practice in 1936 with Lewis MacNaughton. DeGolyer served as a director of a number of companies, including Transwestern Oil Company, Texas Eastern Gas Transmission Corporation, Southern Pacific Railroad Company, Dresser Industries, and the United States and Foreign Securities Corporation. During World War II DeGolyer served as director of conservation in the Office of the Coordinator for National Defense (1941–42). He was also assistant deputy administrator of the Petroleum Administration for War (1942–43); he headed its mission to Mexico in 1942 and the Petroleum Reserve Corporation's mission to the Middle East in 1943–44. He was chief of the technical advisory commission to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Teheran Conference. His continued government service after the war included membership on the National Petroleum Council and the National Security Resources Board, and advisory functions for the Atomic Energy Commission and the International Scientific Conference on Conservation and Utilization of Resources.
DeGolyer was director of the American Petroleum Institute for more than twenty years and a founder of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He received the association's highest honor, the Sidney Powers Gold Medal, in 1950. He was also a fellow of the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Institute of Petroleum, and other professional societies. He was an honorary member of the National Research Council, the National Academy of Sciences, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, Sigma Xi, Phi Beta Kappa, the Texas Academy of Science, and the Texas Institute of Letters. He was also a trustee of the Texas Research Foundation. He became the first "oil man" president of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (1927) and was awarded its Anthony F. Lucas (1941) and John Fritz (1942) medals. In 1939 he received the Distinguished Service Award of the Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and, in 1948, the Distinguished Service Citation of the University of Oklahoma. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1952.
DeGolyer contributed prolifically to the literature of his own science and assembled one of the world's best libraries for the history of science, which he donated to the University of Oklahoma. He was also associate editor of the New Colophon and the Southwest Review and chairman of the editorial board of the Saturday Review of Literature, of which he gained controlling interest in 1948. He was a student of the early Spanish exploration of the Southwest and wrote the 1930 Encyclopaedia Britannica biographical entry for Antonio López de Santa Anna. He donated his collection of first and rare editions of modern American and English writers to the University of Texas at Austin, where he served as distinguished professor of geology in 1940. His collection of works on oil and gas law and western and Mexican history makes up part of the DeGolyer Library holdings at Southern Methodist University.
DeGolyer was recognized as the "father" of American geophysics and was for a long time the world's leading oil consultant. His unorthodox acceptance of the European plastic-flow theory of the origin and nature of salt domes and his consequent development of the tools capable of subterranean prospecting revolutionized oil exploration, though he was convinced of the role of luck in his own success. Viewing science and technology as the key to wealth with its political ramifications, DeGolyer believed that the function of science was to serve the economy. He held seven honorary doctorates, lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Princeton, and was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. DeGolyer was a Congregationalist and a Republican, a Mason, and the father of four children. After seven years' suffering from aplastic anemia, he took his own life at his office in Dallas, on December 14, 1956.