Lewis Nettleton

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Lewis Nettleton
L. L. Nettleton headshot.gif
Membership Honorary Member
BSc Geophysics
PhD Physics
BSc university University of Idaho
PhD university University of Wisconsin

Lewis Lomax Nettleton (1896-1988) a pioneering geophysicist, Maurice Ewing Medal recipient. He served as the 1948-1949 SEG President. Dr. Nettleton served as the Editor of ''Geophysics'' in the years 1945-1946 and 1946-1947.[1]

Biography Citation for Honorary Membership

Contributed by Nelson C. Steenland

The Society is privileged to honor Dr. Lewis Lomax Nettleton with its eleventh honorary membership. Such an honor could not be more appropriate, for here we have a pioneer of the geophysical industry and a bulwark of our own Society which he has served most actively for more than twenty years. Known as the "man who wrote the book" or as "Mr. Salt Dome," he personifies our profession and may aptly be called "Mr. Geophysics."

Dr. Nettleton was born in a small town of western Idaho, Nampa, on June 24, 1896. His undergraduate courses were completed at the University of Idaho with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1913. Subsequently he received further degrees in physics at the University of Wisconsin, a Master of Science in 1921 and a doctorate in 1923. While at Wisconsin, he was an assistant on the staff of the physics department.

With the completion of his formal education, he began his professional career as a physicist in the research department of the Union Switch and Signal Company in Pittsburgh. Patent applications reveal his developing apparatus for railway-traffic-control during this period.

The year 1928 found Dr. Nettleton embarking on his geophysical career with Gulf Research and Development Co. where he afterwards became chief of the gravity section. In an amazingly short time he published, in 1934 actually, his concept of the genesis of salt domes, "Fluid mechanics of salt domes," a concept which is fundamental to and of profound influence upon the entire general subject of structural geology as well as the more restricted field of geophysical prospecting. During continued service with Gulf he quite quickly developed fluid models illustrating the growth of salt domes by reason of the relative buoyancy of a substratum of salt of lower density.

Dr. Nettleton's ability to think with originality and clarity is manifested in his publications. His geophysical papers led directly to his departure from Gulf in 1946 to become a partner in Gravity Meter Exploration Company of Houston, Texas. Dr. Schumacher had resigned his partnership. The two remaining partners, Mr. Pagan and Mr. Saville, simply began reading geophysical literature to find a candidate for their new technical partner, and their search ended in the selection of Dr. Nettleton. He has remained in the capacity of a partner in GMX until this time.

Dr. Nettleton's contributions to our profession extend far beyond his great commercial successes into the scientific backbone of geophysics by reason of his very significant publications and his great service to our Society. His writing ability served us in great stead during 1945, 1946, and 1947 when he was our Editor. By way of further service, the Society elected him Vice-President in 1947 and President in 1948.

The publication that has made him an acquaintance of all of us in our very embryonic stage is his textbook, Geophysical prospecting for oil, published in 1940. Of next pre-eminence are his articles on the genesis of salt domes, the 1943 paper which describes the model experiments of salt dome towage. Dr. Nettleton has also published significant papers concerning the reduction of data, the calculations of gravity and magnetic fields, and the general subject of residual anomalies.

You have perhaps noted Dr. Nettleton's successful application of physics to geologic problems. Perhaps his most unusual achievement is this mastery of geology. Without having had any formal training in geology, he has served the Geological Society of America for three years as a member of its projects committee, the committee which screens the applications for funds for research projects. In addition he has been one of four civilian members on the panel on geology, of the committee on geophysical sciences of the Defense Department's Research and Development Board. These facts illustrate his never-ending effort to correlate geophysics and geology--to use geophysics as a geologic tool.

The outstanding factor in his career is his insatiable curiosity, and great intellectual power scientifically trained. This ability and curiosity have influenced all geophysicists and will continue to influence all future geophysicists, because it is a mark of his greatness that his spoken and written words are words of truth. Such is the product of a fine mind placed in a man of supreme moral and intellectual honesty. Such is a man upon which our very profession is based.

This is a great moment for the Society, for Dr. Nettleton, and for the speaker who is simultaneously experiencing great humility and honor in bestowing the Society's eleventh honorary membership on Dr. Lewis L. Nettleton.

Biography of L. L. Nettleton for the Maurice Ewing Medal

Contributed by Cecil Green

It is both a privilege and a pleasure to compose this citation for my long-time and good friend, Lewis Nettleton, in anticipation of his receiving SEG's prestigious award the Maurice Ewing Gold Medal.

As a contemporary of Lewis Nettleton in our important profession of exploration geophysics, I had an early opportunity to regard him as a good example of my own early discovery that exploration geophysics just naturally comprises a happy combination of technology and good people. Thus, Lewis Nettleton typifies the particular personality I have so long admired in which egotism is at a lowest level, while integrity is a sterling quality entailing natural thoughtfulness of others. He was born in the small town of Nampa, Idaho, in 1896 and lived in the state until he graduated from the University of Idaho in 1918. He then very wisely elected to undertake graduate studies in basic physical science, resulting in his receiving a Ph.D. degree in physics at the University of Wisconsin in 1923. During these graduate school years he had the good fortune to meet and marry Marion Moore, who became his devoted companion for more than the next 50 years. The advent of applied geophysics was still beyond the horizon, and so he accepted a research and development position with Union Switch and Signal Company at Swissvale, Pennsylvania. Happily, this location was near Pittsburgh, so he found it quite easy to transfer in 1928 to the laboratory of Gulf Research and Development Company where he just naturally found himself in terms of fulfilling his natural interests, while at the same time being inspired by the companionship of such future fellow stalwarts as E. A. Eckhardt, R. D. Wyckoff, L. P. Garrett, Sigmund Hammer, Paul Weaver, Leo J. Peters and Morris Muskat.

In those days exploration emphasis was on gravity measurements utilizing the torsion balance, a cumbersome instrument, but which nevertheless led to the discovery of the Nash salt dome on the Texas Gulf Coast in 1924 and which identified the first oil field discovered by any geophysical method. So, it was natural for Nettleton to become initially involved in the interpretation of torsion balance data then, with the passage of time, to progress to pendulum data, and finally to information from modern and fast-operating gravity meters. Rather than becoming involved in field operations, he elected to specialize in interpretation techniques, and this resulted in two important interests as he realized that the majority of geologists had very little understanding of geophysics and consequently limited confidence in its use. That was also the period when competition was provided by so-called "black box artists." So, Nettleton felt the need to broaden the education of geologists to include better understanding of gravity data as a means of improving their exploration ability. He obtained permission from Gulf R&D to become a part-time instructor in geophysics to geology students at the nearby University of Pittsburgh, while at the same time composing a textbook primarily for geologists entitled, Geophysical Prospecting for Oil, which soon became virtually a bible in the exploration industry. Simultaneously, he spent an inordinate amount of personal time in educating himself on all facets of geology with the final result that he became a member of the Geological Society of America. His ultimate versatility as a geologist-geophysicist resulted in his appointment as one of four civilian members of the Earth Sciences Committee of the Defense Department's Research and Development Board. Quite naturally, he also became a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, as well as the American Geophysical Union. It is important to note that his paper in the AAPG Bulletin on the mechanism of growth of salt domes continues to be cited to this date decades later! His natural and dedicated interest in the merits of collaboration, wherein physicists and electrical engineers would benefit from knowledge of geology, while geologists acquire some knowledge of physics, has now become accepted as a necessary curriculum pattern for the present-day explorationist. As a result of his ever-widening spectrum of interest, coupled with increasing recognition as an authoritative writer, he found it easy and indeed quite natural to transfer in 1946 from Gulf to the heart of the domestic oil country by accepting a partnership role with a company, known eventually as Gravity Meter Exploration Company an affiliation he maintained until his retirement. So, it is now quite natural and so well deserved that Lewis Nettleton be regarded as a pioneer, a man who has become a recognized "Father" of Exploration Geophysics. Our profession has quite properly recognized his outstanding stature as we note the important fact that he is one of the few SEG members who has been on its executive committee for as many as four consecutive years as Editor, Vice-President and President. In addition, he became the eleventh Honorary Member of the Society.

It is easy to appreciate that our late and distinguished fellow member, Maurice Ewing, would not only approve, but would indeed feel highly honored to have his medal bestowed upon Lewis Nettleton as another very distinguished member of our Society.


  1. Clark, D. (2010), Out of the past. The Leading Edge," 75(5), 75A263-75A271.

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