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Unforgettable Teachers: A.I. Levorsen

Treasure Seeker

Stanford Archives

KNOW THE DRILL: Levorsen’s students learned to predict where oil might lurk.

By Harry Ptasynski

I switched my major from engineering to geology after a few introductory courses. Geology seemed more fun, and the proof of that was in the petroleum geology course taught by A.I. Levorsen, the first dean of the Stanford School of Mineral Sciences (now Earth Sciences).

Not only did “Lev” present the science in a lucid and entertaining way, but he also imparted an exploration philosophy—an attitude of optimism, skepticism toward dogma, and persistence—without which it is nearly impossible to discover petroleum. Peppering his lectures with tales from the oil fields, he epitomized the lore that “oil is found in the minds of men.”

His lab assignments, reports, quizzes, field trips and exams were all directed to one thing: developing a talent for finding oil. A large part of the final exam consisted of a map of a hypothetical region displaying the locations of various surface conditions and the sites of unsuccessful wells. The challenge was to identify as many potential oil prospects as possible and explain the reasoning. Another part of the final was to select a nonproducing or slightly producing province anywhere in the world and make a geologic case to justify new exploration. It was like a vast treasure hunt.

Levorsen developed close friendships with many of us during field trips, school picnics and bull sessions, and his influence in the oil industry was such that a recommendation from him weighed mightily in a job application. (Before joining Stanford, he was a successful independent oil geologist.) He closely followed his students’ careers, always offering encouragement.

A lasting result of his inspirational teaching can be seen in the fact that I and many others who studied with him, though long past the age of retirement, are still active in the business, still looking for oil and gas.

—Harry Ptasynski, ’49

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