Alfred H. Bell

1895 to 1977
Petroleum Geology

Alfred H. Bell"Will accept position can begin work July first." With that brief Western Union telegram on May 22, 1926, Alfred Bell began a career at the Illinois State Geological Survey that would span more than 37 years. During that time, he would be a prolific researcher, publishing articles that would benefit the oil and gas industry and influence thought on oil accumulation in the Illinois Basin.

Alfred Hannam Bell was born at Simcoe, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 1895, to Walter and Nuala (nee Donley) Bell, who were both educators. He studied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Toronto. He was a member of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force from 1916 to 1919 and, while in Europe, attended the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, Scotland, for 6 months. He was awarded a B.S. in absentia from the University of Toronto in 1917 while he was on active military duty in France. Additionally, he worked on various field projects for the Geological Survey of Canada from 1914 to 1923. From 1924 to 1926, he worked for the Texas Company (now Texaco) in their Kansas office doing subsurface geological studies. He earned his Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago in 1926.

Bell joined the Illinois State Geological Survey in 1926 and worked with Gail Moulton on surface and subsurface studies relating to petroleum accumulation. In 1930, he became head of the Oil and Gas Section, a position he held until his retirement in 1963. He published prolifically in the Illinois Petroleum Series, authoring or co-authoring a total of 61 volumes in that series. Other ISGS publications included 22 Circulars, 14 Reports of Investigations, 10 Reprints, and 3 Bulletins. His optimistic insight into the probability of deep oil in the Illinois Basin is credited with leading to the second major oil development cycle in Illinois, a period of discovery and production incomparably greater than the first cycle that began in 1905.

At the time of his arrival at the Survey and for several years thereafter, it was thought that oil and gas possibilities in Illinois were limited to the La Salle Anticline in eastern Illinois and several smaller anticlines in the western and southwestern parts of the state. Bell challenged that philosophy when he presented a paper at the Illinois Academy of Science in 1930 noting similarities of the Illinois and Michigan Basins, the latter being oil productive and the former thought by most oil men to be barren. Bell maintained that wells drilled in the central Basin needed to be deeper to test the most promising potential oil-bearing strata. That same year, he displayed a map of Illinois on which he classified various areas according to what he thought were their oil productive possibilities, rating the Illinois Basin area highest. During 1934 to 1935, Bell worked with J. Marvin Weller using newly developed ideas on stratigraphy to find suitable traps for oil within the Illinois Basin. As a result of Bell's new philosophy regarding oil in the deep Basin, two major oil companies leased large tracts of land in 1936, and, after a seismograph survey, began drilling three wells. In May 1937, one of the wells was completed for 2,645 barrels a day at a time when a 200-barrel well was considered exceptional. This completion started a frenzy of landmen, seismic crews, oil scouts, and drillers into the Illinois Basin that led to much of its present-day configuration of oil fields. Almost all of these wells were completed within the area of highest potential shown on Bell's 1930 map.

Under his insightful direction, the Oil and Gas Section began assembling and centralizing oil and gas records. This collection, maintained by the Illinois State Geological Survey's Geological Records Unit, is now one of the most complete and continuous libraries of its type, currently housing records on over 500,000 borings of all kinds.

Bell was active in numerous professional organizations and societies including American Association for the Advancement of Science, Americani Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers (AIME), American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), Geological Society of America, American Geophysical Union, Illinois Academy of Science, the Illinois Geological Society, and Sigma Xi. He also served in the prestigious post of editor for the AAPG Bulletin from 1949 to 1951. Many tributes were written to and about A.H. Bell through the years. He was elected to honorary membership in AAPG, received a certificate of service from the Petroleum Engineers of AIME, and was designated as the Illinois Geological Society's Most Distinguished Member (a unique honor). ISGS Chief M.M. Leighton said of Bell in a tribute for the AAPG, "The Association commends and honors this able and modest man for his extended career of scientific accomplishments and for his unwavering integrity."

On February 27, 1928, Bell married Dorothy (Dottie) Anne Becker, a geologist who had come to work at the ISGS as manager of the Technical Files Division a few years earlier. They made their home in Urbana and had three children: Ross, Martha, and Enid. Bell died on April 10, 1977, in Urbana at the age of 81.

Honored by: 
Rob Finley
Citation Contributed by: 
B.G. Huff