M. King Hubbert, geophysicist, son of William Bee and Cora Virginia (Lee) Hubbert, was born in San Saba, Texas, on October 5, 1903. When he was four his mother organized a school for neighborhood children, an undertaking that impressed him deeply. A year later the family moved to the vicinity of Fort Stockton, where William Hubbert worked as a ranch foreman and farmer. Not long afterwards the family returned to San Saba County. King attended country schools in both Fort Stockton and San Saba, then enrolled in a private high school. His fascination with such mechanical devices as steam engines and telephones, then first appearing in Texas, revealed his precocity. Between 1921 and 1923 he attended Weatherford Junior College. He then enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he received his B.S. in 1926 and his M.S. in 1928. While working towards his doctorate he was hired, in 1930, to teach geophysics at Columbia University, where he remained until 1940. He finished the Ph.D. in 1937. During the summer months Hubbert worked on geophysical problems for the Amerada Petroleum Corporation in Oklahoma, the Illinois State Geological Survey, and the United States Geological Survey. In 1943, after serving as a senior analyst at the Board of Economic Warfare in Washington, D.C., he joined the Shell Oil Company in Houston, where for several years he directed the Shell research laboratory. After retiring from Shell in 1964, Hubbert joined the United States Geological Survey as a senior research geophysicist, a position he held until 1976.
He made numerous important contributions to geophysics, ranging from fundamental scientific research to extensive studies of oil and natural gas reserves in the United States and worldwide. In 1937 he resolved a standing paradox regarding the apparent strength of materials that form the crust of the earth, for such rocks, despite their evident strength, often show signs of plastic flow. Hubbert demonstrated mathematically that even the hardest of rocks on the earth's surface, subject to the immense pressures occurring across large areas, will respond in a manner similar to soft muds or clays. In the early 1950s he introduced important revisions in theories about the flow of underground fluids. His own research, which demonstrated that fluids can become entrapped under circumstances previously not thought possible, led to a major reassessment of techniques employed to locate oil and natural gas deposits. By 1959, in collaboration with William W. Rubey, a geologist at the USGS, Hubbert explained the puzzling displacement of enormous blocks of material, known to geologists as overthrust faults, as a consequence of fluid pressure between such blocks and underlying materials.
Hubbert is perhaps best known for his studies of petroleum and natural gas reserves, a subject he became attracted to in the 1920s while a student at Chicago. In 1949 he employed statistical and physical methods to calculate the worldwide volume of oil and natural gas supplies, then documented their sharply increasing consumption. In 1956 he predicted that the peak of crude-oil production in the United States would occur between 1966 and 1971. Although Hubbert's interpretation was later judged as essentially correct, his figures of future reserves were much lower than those accepted by many American petroleum companies and leaders of the USGS. In 1958, partly to illustrate the limits of available oil and natural gas supplies and the important questions of national policy they raised, Hubbert published a report on the mineral resources of Texas. As a consequence of his studies of natural resources, he was invited to participate on various government panels, including the Committee on Natural Resources Advisory to President John F. Kennedy, organized by the National Academy of Sciences.
Hubbert was also influential in promoting in American universities the study of geophysics, an area of research that well into the 1950s was more at home in government agencies, private research institutions, or petroleum corporations than in academic environments. Between 1936 and 1949 Hubbert participated in committees on geophysical education sponsored by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the National Research Council, and the Geological Society of America. He remained throughout his life an outspoken advocate of the need for increased use of the methods of physical science in geology.
He became active in a number of social causes, including the Technocracy Movement of the 1930s, a group led by Howard Scott that attracted such noted individuals as the economist Thorstein Veblen and the physicist Richard Tolman. He also remained committed to teaching undergraduates about natural resources and accepted visiting professorships for this purpose at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins University. In 1938 Hubbert married Miriam Graddy Berry, a Kentucky native then working in New York City. The couple had no children. Hubbert was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Geological Survey of America. He wrote numerous publications in his field. He died on October 11, 1989.