Pratt, Wallace Everette (1885–1981)

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: April 30, 2019

Wallace Everette Pratt, petroleum geologist and conservationist, was born in Phillipsburg, Kansas, on March 15, 1885, the son of William Henry and Olive Belle (Bostetter) Pratt. He worked as a hotel night clerk and on the Kansas University Geological Survey while attending the University of Kansas and received a B.A. in geological studies and a B.S. in 1908. He earned a master's degree the following year and an engineer of mines degree in 1914 from the same institution. From 1910 to 1915 Pratt worked in the Philippines for that country's Bureau of Science, rising to become chief of the Division of Mines in 1913. He moved to Texas in 1916, when he joined the Texas Company (Texaco) in Houston. In 1918 he became the first geologist hired by the Humble Oil and Refining Company (later Exxon Company, U.S.A.) and pioneered the application of scientific principles to finding oil. By 1919, at Pratt's instigation, Humble had hired ten geologists, established a research laboratory in Houston, and was well on the way to becoming the nation's largest oil producer. The company's production rose from less than eight million barrels in 1920 to seventeen million barrels three years later, and by the mid-1930s Humble had more than twice as many reserves as its nearest competitor.

Pratt soon earned a reputation for his uncanny ability to predict where large amounts of oil could be found. In 1921 he became convinced that the most productive oil sands lay to the west of a lease block in Mexia, rather than to the east, as most experts believed. He persuaded Humble to invest $400,000 in proving his theory, and 175 of the first 180 wells drilled on the land he had targeted produced oil. He also persuaded Humble to lease oil and gas rights on the King Ranch at a time when South Texas was thought to have little or no oil; by 1971 the King Ranch had some 600 working oil and gas wells and was the site of the largest natural gas processing plant in the world. And in "Oil Fields in the Arctic," a 1944 article in Harper's Magazine, Pratt predicted the presence of vast oil reserves in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay area; he was finally proven correct in 1968, when Humble and Atlantic Richfield made the first major discovery in the Alaskan North Slope. Such achievements brought him a full measure of success. In 1924 he was elected to the Humble board of directors, and in 1933 he became a vice president of the company. In 1937 he left Humble and moved to New York to become a director and member of the executive committee of Standard Oil of New Jersey, and in 1942, the same year he became a vice president of Standard, he wrote Oil in the Earth, an examination of the oil business intended for a lay audience. He retired from Standard in 1946 and spent three years in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant to the chairman of the National Security Resources Board and then as a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission. He returned to Texas in 1949.

Pratt was not just a successful oilman, however; he was also an environmentalist. He urged wide spacing of oil and gas wells, deplored the flaring of natural gas, and sought controls to prevent water pollution by tankers and refineries. He is likely to be best remembered, however, for his role in the establishment of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. He had first seen the mountains in 1920, when he and some friends drove the ninety-five miles from Pecos in a Model-T Ford. Pratt immediately fell in love with the Guadalupes and began buying land in McKittrick Canyon. Eventually he acquired 5,632 acres, and in 1930 the Houston architect John F. Staub built a stone house for Pratt near the mouth of the canyon. After Pratt returned to Texas in 1949, he lived there with his second wife, the former Iris Calderhead, although he continued to commute by private airplane to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he had a consulting business. In 1961 he deeded his land in McKittrick Canyon to the National Park Service, stipulating that a park be established in the Guadalupes. Four years later, due to Iris Pratt's failing health, the Pratts moved to Tucson, Arizona. After years of delays the park finally opened to the public in 1972.

Pratt received many professional honors during his lifetime. He was a founding member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 1917 and served as president in 1920. He was honored three times by that organization: in 1945 he became the first recipient of the Sidney Powers Memorial Medal for distinguished contributions to the field, he was made an honorary member in 1958, and in 1972 he received a gold medal for Service Through Geology to Human Needs in recognition of his donation of his land in the Guadalupes. Pratt received the Anthony F. Lucas Gold Medal from the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers in 1948, the James Furman Kemp Medal from Columbia University in 1950, and the American Petroleum Institute Gold Medal in 1954. He was also a member of the Society of Economic Geologists, Sigma Xi, and an honorary member of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He was elected to the Permian Basin Hall of Fame in 1969, and in 1973 a geophysics professorship was established in his name at the University of Texas at Austin. He married Pearl M. Stuckey on December 30, 1912. They had three children. After his first wife's death he married Iris Calderhead on January 3, 1941; after Iris Pratt's death, shortly after their move to Tucson, Pratt married Suzanne d'Autremont, on November 4, 1966. He died at the age of ninety-six on Christmas Day, 1981, survived by his third wife and his three children from his first marriage.

W. L. Copithorne, "The Worlds of Wallace Pratt," The Lamp, Fall 1971. Who Was Who in America, Vol. 7.


  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Science
  • Geologists and Geophysicists

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Martin Donell Kohout, “Pratt, Wallace Everette,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 08, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995
April 30, 2019