Long-time ISGS geologist W. John Nelson receives Gordon H. Wood Jr. Memorial Award

The American Association of Petroleum Geologists Energy Minerals Division’s Eastern Section awarded this year’s Gordon H. Wood, Jr. Memorial Award to W. John Nelson, Jr., in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the geology of coal and other energy minerals. Nelson began his career with the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in 1974 and has remained active in research, particularly investigations of Pennsylvanian stratigraphy of the Illinois Basin, since his retirement in 2007. 

Nelson has authored or co-authored approximately 155 full-length publications and maps, including more than 75 ISGS publications, more than 50 geologic quadrangle maps, 15 articles in field trip guidebooks, and over 70 abstracts at national meetings. He holds the record for most publications among all ISGS geologists, having recently surpassed former ISGS survey chief M.M. Leighton.

Nelson graduated from Williams College (Massachusetts) with a B.S. in Geology in 1971 and earned an M.S. from the University of Illinois in 1973. Following a brief stint working with Phillips Petroleum Company in Denver, Nelson joined the Coal Section at ISGS in March 1974.  His early work involved detailed mapping of underground coal mines, delineating geologic features related to roof stability. This detailed mine mapping was pioneering work; the U.S. Bureau of Mines took notice and soon followed, with many coal companies embarking on similar programs.  In conjunction with this early roof mapping work, Nelson began mapping tectonic fault zones in underground mines. From here he began his lifelong journey of mapping local and regional structure and publishing many reports and works on the structure and tectonics of Illinois and elsewhere.

Nelson’s first foray into mapping began in 1982, creating 1:24,000 scale quadrangle geologic maps in southern Illinois. In the late 1980s Nelson transferred into the ISGS Basin Analysis Section, where he continued his mapping and research on structural geology and regional tectonics, regional stratigraphic studies of the Carboniferous and Permian rocks in the Illinois Basin. Nelson is currently working to complete the first comprehensive official reclassification of the Pennsylvanian.

From 1989 to 1990, Nelson took part in an exchange program with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. He carried out surface and subsurface mapping of the Cat Creek area in central Montana, the first oil field in the state. He was able to work the sequences of five major tectonic episodes and further puzzled out their relationship to the migration and trapping of hydrocarbons.

In the 1990s, Nelson’s quadrangle mapping in southern Illinois led to a series of investigations on the neotectonics of the New Madrid seismic zone. The studies demonstrated tectonic faulting in southern Illinois as young as Wisconsinan, a realization that altered the perception of earthquake hazards for the region.

Beginning in 1995 Nelson began a series of investigations into Pennsylvanian and Permian rocks of Texas, New Mexico, Utah, and other western states in collaboration with other state surveys and museums. These projects continue today. Nelson remains active in the ISGS Coal, Bedrock Geology, and Industrial Minerals Section, contributing to numerous projects and as a resource for ISGS staff. 

Congratulations John, and thank you for your efforts, work, and dedication!