Jack Donald Burgess
by Dan Jarvie
Jack Donald Burgess, one of the early pioneers in applying microscopic analysis of organic matter to assess thermal maturity, passed away on April 6, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. Jack had a long career in palynology, petrology, and organic geochemistry spanning approximately 60 years. He graduated in 1949 from the University of Illinois having majored in geology with a minor in botany. In 1955 he earned a master's degree from the University of Missouri majoring in geology. In 1957 he joined Carter Oil Company, which later became Humble Oil and later still Exxon and ExxonMobil as it is today. Jack established a palynological laboratory in Denver for their Rocky Mountain operations. 

In 1967 he transferred to the Humble Oil & Refining Company research center in Houston where he established the first vitrinite reflectance laboratory at a major oil company. With the laboratory in place Jack initiated research into study of particulate organic matter and its thermal maturity as it related to oil and gas fields. He also developed an organic matter classification scheme most of which is in use today.

Jack joined Gulf Oil, which later merged with Chevron in 1985, and performed petrographic and various geochemical analyses in most petroleum producing basins around the world. He established a domestic geochemistry laboratory in Houston in 1979 and also helped establish a geochemistry laboratory in Lagos, Nigeria.

I first met Jack in 1982 when he was located at the Gulf Research Center in Harmarville, Pennsylvania, where he worked with many of the well-known names in geology and organic geochemistry such as David Demshur, Cliff Walters, Victor Jones, and David Jeffrey. After moving to Houston in 1980, Jack worked closely with the production division of Gulf/Chevron assisting in the identification of by-passed pay in the Permian Basin, for example. On July 15, 1992 Jack retired from Chevron and joined Humble Geochemical Services in August 1992.  His addition to the staff at Humble Geochemical was a key point in the laboratory’s history as the addition of Jack and his microscopy work brought much additional business and prestige to the company. He was categorically instrumental in our work on the Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth Basin as the Mitchell Energy geologists wanted his analysis and input on their efforts.  As such it is important to remember that Jack’s work spanned the entire field of geochemistry, not just microscopic analysis. Jack retired from Humble at age 85.

After joining Humble Geochemical Jack’s residence was still in Sugar Land, and he commuted one hour each way to Humble to perform kerogen maturity and visual kerogen analysis. We offered to setup a microscope at his home, but he really wanted to be in the office interacting with lab personnel, geochemists, and clients. His daughter, Jami Roux, related to me that Jack was suffering from Parkinson’s in his final months, but he often told her ‘I need to go to work; Dan needs me’. What a precious memory for me and my colleagues at Humble.  Some of you have heard the story of my exhibition of braggadocio when I received my twenty-year membership certificate from AAPG in 2005. Jack overhead my story and quickly produced a certificate that showed his last membership certificate to read 55 years!  Needless to say, I’m not sure what happened to my twenty-year certificate, but it sure didn’t seem very impressive anymore compared to Jack’s lengthy career. 

Jack served industry and received numerous honors for his work and activities. He was president of the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologist and President of The Society for Organic Petrology (as well as a founding member of the society in 1983). Jack was an organizer and convener of the Symposium of Thermal Maturation of Organic Materials as related to Hydrocarbon Generation and Migration in 1974. He also taught coal petrology at the University of Pittsburgh and was an invited lecturer at the Symposium on Biostratigraphy and Laboratory Standards in Stavanger, Norway.

Jack received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists and in 2004 the John Castaño Award from TSOP. Jack is survived by his beautiful wife of over 63 years, Elaine Ragan Burgess, and two wonderful daughters, Jami and Sandra. When you see me wearing a tie, think of Jack Donald Burgess as he would not go anywhere without a tie. Jack was old school, very dignified and honorable as was his life and career.  As the TSOP Castaño Award reads “Jack Burgess is a man of many interests and his enthusiasm for earth science, microscopy and geochemistry is widely known and has influenced many people”. Count me among them.