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Three Women Provide the Profound Exploration Technology Breakthrough of the 1920s


Oil and gas companies were desperate for a technology to correlate and understand the chaotic subsurface geology of the Gulf Coast in the early 1920s. E. T. Dumble, Rio Bravo Oil, convinced Humble, Gulf Oil, and the Texas Company to join him in forming a consortium to hire a full time paleontologist to work on this effort. At this time the companies thought their best chance rested in macropaleontology, mollusks in particular, based on the detailed stratigraphy work being conducted by Julia Gardner, USGS, on coastal stratigraphy. In 1920 Dumble hired Esther Applin (ne Richards) from UC Berkeley and sent her into the field immediately to collect fossils along the coast of Florida and Mississippi. Committed to the consortium, but desiring his own paleo lab at Humble, Wallace Pratt hired Alva Ellisor to begin processing well cuttings and surface samples. A year later, the Texas Company hired Hedwig Kniker to set up a paleo lab in their Houston offices. All three women roomed together in a Houston apartment and would study their paleo literature at night and discuss their mutual findings. They rapidly brought Hedwig up to speed with their subsurface work. They soon determined the macrofossils were not the most effective tool but started taking a good look at foraminifera which seemed to provide some promise. Alva is credited with the first breakthrough correlation work, but Esther was neck-in-neck with her. In December of 1921, their initial proposal to use foraminifera was presented at the GSA meeting in Amherst where they suffered a bit of ridicule. The dogma of the day was that one-celled animals could not provide the diversity and rapid change through time to be effective. They proved otherwise. By 1924, when the first AAPG annual meeting was held in Houston, the three women presented a paper on their collaborative results. This was a seminal paper which betan to sort out the Tertiary stratigraphy of the Gulf Coast and was published in the AAPG Bulletin in 1925. By 1928 over 300 micropaleontologists were working in the oil and gas industry, and in 1931 it was estimated that 75% of the wells drilled were drilled depended on micropaleontology. Sophisticated biostratigraphy today continues to rely on this important and critical technological breakthrough.