Donald Clinton Barton (June 29, 1889- July 8, 1939) was an American geoscientist, a pioneer of exploration geophysics, and one of the founders of SEG and the first SEG President serving for both the 1931-1932 and the 1932-1933 terms.
Donald C. Barton was given SEG membership number 1 and that distinction, although the result of alphabetical accident, was appropriate for at least two historic professional accomplishments. Barton was the first explorationist to discover commercial amounts of petroleum via a geophysical technique and was the prime mover in creating, only a few years after geophysical exploration had begun, a professional society dedicated to the emerging discipline.
Early Years and Education
Geophysics did not exist as a profession when Barton was born in 1889 in Stow, Massachusetts. He entered Harvard in 1907 and earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from that university by 1914.
He spent two years on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and then joined the Empire Gas and Fuel Company. Barton served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War I as did John C. Karcher. However, The History of Geophysical Prospecting by George Elliott Sweet (the source of most of this biographical material) does not indicate any contact at that time between these two seminal figures in applied geophysics. They, in any event, followed different paths after the war, Karcher into seismology and Barton into potential fields.
Barton was hired by the legendary oil finder Everett DeGolyer in 1919 and sent to Houston as Amerada’s Gulf Coast Division Geologist. In 1922, Barton went to Europe to learn about magnetometers at Göttingen and about the torsion balance at Budapest from the successors of its inventor, Baron von Eötvös.
Barton returned to Houston in the fall of 1922, accompanied by two torsion balances—the first imported into the United States. He supervised the field work of one of these instruments which led to the discovery of the Nash salt dome in Brazoria County, Texas in the spring of 1924. A producing oil field came on stream in 1926—the first ever discovered by geophysics. Lee Lawyer (former chief geophysicist of Chevron, longtime TLE columnist, and coauthor of Geophysics in the Affairs of Mankind) recently sent a note that says, in essence, this discovery also may have been the first example of “lookalike” or “analog” exploration.
“They mapped the gravity over Spindletop (the famous field discovered in 1901) in 1922,” Lawyer wrote. “Spindletop is a very shallow salt dome with a cap rock made up of anhydrite and calcium carbonate. Even though salt has a very low density, the dome displays a markedly positive gravity anomaly. This is a result of the cap rock plus the fact that the salt density exceeds that of the surrounding sediments at this depth. This is now common knowledge but wasn’t known, and wasn’t obvious, back then.
“Barton went looking for a salt dome with a positive anomaly that matched Spindletop. Several other salt domes were mapped, all with negative anomalies, before the Nash dome was surveyed. It had an anomaly very similar to Spindletop. Drilling the cap resulted in dry holes but, when they got around to drilling the flank, they discovered oil.”
Founding of SEG
This, of course, established Barton as a major figure in the infant science and he remained in the forefront of both petroleum-oriented geophysics and geology until his premature death, at age 50, on 8 July 1939. To SEG members, the most important of his accomplishments during his final 15 years resulted from a letter that Barton sent in July 1929 in which he proposed forming a geophysical society. As a consequence, a group met at the University Club in Houston in January 1930 and appointed an organization committee. The group worked quickly and the Society of Economic Geophysicists was formed at a meeting of 29 men and one woman on 11 March 1930.
That initial SEG became SPG (the Society of Petroleum Geophysicists) in 1931 and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 1937. Barton was elected president for the 1930-31 term of office. He wasted no time in getting the new society into high gear. Slightly more than two months later, on 20 May, the Constitution and Bylaws were approved and two papers were published in mimeograph form.
Barton was again elected SEG president for the succeeding term, 1931-32, making him the first (and to date only) person to twice hold that position. Barton also served as AAPG president in 1938-39. He is one of only two individuals to lead both societies. According to Sweet, Barton “pioneered the method of interpretation of gravity field data and its relation to subsurface structure. DeGolyer and Barton were the American authorities on the theory of the formation and structure of salt domes.”
Barton remained quite active until his final illness and left behind much unpublished material, all of which was organized and some of which was put into publishable form by his former research associate Ethel Ward-McLemore. (The late Ethel Ward-McLemore was awarded SEG Honorary Membership in 1989. An article on her distinguished career by Dolores Proubasta, published in TLE in 1988 article link, contains interesting insights about Barton from the perspective of his closest professional colleague—they shared the same office with adjoining desks that faced each other—during most of the 1930s. A memorial by Andrew Gilmour, published in GEOPHYSICS in 1939, contains an assessment of Barton’s role in the infancy of exploration geophysics from a professional associate of the 1920s.)
The society that Barton had been so instrumental in founding in 1930 was thriving by the time of his death. GEOPHYSICS had begun publication in 1936, annual meetings had been held since 1931, and membership was accelerating toward 1000.
- Clark, D. (2005). ”The founder.” The Leading Edge, 24(2), 140–140.
- Dolores Proubasta (1988). ”Ethel Ward‐McLemore.” The Leading Edge, 7(10), 42-47. doi: 10.1190/1.1439448 Ethel Ward-McLemore tribute, TLE 1988