Illing, Vincent Charles

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(b. Jalandar, Punjab, India [now Pakistan], 24 September 1890; d. London, England, 16 May 1969)


Illing was the younger son of Thomas Illing and Annie Payton. His father was serving with the British Army, and Illing’s early life was spent in the foothills of the Himalayas of India and on the island of Malta.

When his father retired and the4 family returned to England, Vincent was thirteen. He was enrolled in the King Edward VI Grammar School at Nuneaton, where his education was shown to be somewhat deficient by British standards. He soon made up this deficiency and went on to win scholarships that enabled him to enter Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1909. Inspired by W.G. Fearnsides, a fellow of the college, Vincent made geology his major subject. He completed parts 1 and 2 of the general science tripos in three years, winning firstclass honors in each. He was awarded a Harkness Scholarship, which allowed him while still an undergraduate to map the Cambrian inlier near his home in Hartshill. He discovered a rich Cambrian fauna, near Birmingham in Warwickshire, that proved to be the link between the fauna of Newfoundland on the west and of Scandinavia on the east, thus laying the foundation for the framework of geological history in these areas. This work was recognized by the Geological Society of London when he received its Lyell Fund in 1918.

In 1913 Professor W.W.Watts at Imperial College of Science and Technology in London invited Illing to start a course on petroleum geology at the Royal School of Mines, which was part of Imperial College. This was the beginning of a long association with Imperial College; in 1914 he was demonstrator in petroleum and lecturer by 1915. Illing was appointed assistant professor in 1921 and professor in 1935; he retired in 1955. He built the course in petroleum geology mainly on the literature and emphasized the achievements of the American oil industry. The core of his courses related to the geological occurrence of oil fields and their relationship to stratigraphy. His first publication on this topic was in 1919, when he wrote “The Search for Subterranean ‘Oil–pool’ in the British Isles,” a pessimistic view of the economic prospects that was provoked by exaggerated ideas held by some politicians. Illing thought that Britain’s Carboniferous strata were too strongly folded, faulted, and eroded to have retained economic oil or gas fields. He also criticized the use of percussion drills, which yielded poor rock samples, and recommended methods of coring that would provide more important data. In this opinion he was ahead of his time.

Originally Illing’s philosophy about oil geology was that an oil geologist could concentrate on exploration or move into oil development, and he modified his course to accommodate this belief. Later he recognized no essential difference between these fields.

In 1915 Illing’s teaching was interrupted while he studied the oil geology of Trinidad. At this time he decided to combine academic and consulting work in order to assist in the building of a viable oil technology department at the Royal School of Mines. He held a lifelong conviction that knowledge and scientific discoveries should be applied to the welfare of mankind.

After returning to London, Illing met Frances Jean Leslie, a teacher. They were married on 20 December 1919, and had a son and four daughters. Illing then took a two–year absence from Imperial College to investigate the geology of the Naparima area of Trinidad for the Naparima Oil Company During this study he initiated the use of heavymineral suites as a correlation aid in the highly disturbed strata of Trinidad. He is credited by later writers with laying the foundation for this correlation technique.

Upon returning to teaching and research at the Royal School of Mines, Illing stressed the need for good field geologists with a sound geological training and a good knowledge of chemistry and physics. During World War I, Britain had established an aeronautical inspection department at the Royal School of Mines; after working on matters concerning the physics and chemistry of petroleum and its products, Illing acknowledged the importance of geophysical work in the search for and development of oil reservoirs.

After the war Illing’s geological studies during summer vacations took him to the oil fields of Poland and Romania, and the oil mine at Pechelbronn. France; these investigations stimulated an interest in how to obtain maximum recovery from oil deposits. In the course of this work he set up a research project to study the entire process of oil, gas, and water movement in porous media; this led him to speculate on the origin, accumulation. and preservation of hydrocarbons—the field in which he was an early writer and in which he made his greatest contributions to petroleum geology.

His paper “The Migration of Oil and Natural Gas” was a pioneer work in which Illing clearly enumerated many ideas and principles that were new and today are as valid as when they first appeared. Illing’s experiments demonstrated that the main cause of oil movement out of the source rocks is compaction, with hydraulics and gravity important in secondary migration. Primary migration is determined by rock texture; oil enters coarse rocks preferentially and stops at the boundary with fine rocks until the pressure difference overcomes the resistance. Illing followed this paper with seven articles in Volume I of Science of Petroleum (1938). including one on the origin, one on the migration, of petroleum. Some of his ideas on these subjects were revised and restated in “Role of Stratigraphy in Oil Discovery” (1948), which was followed by the five-part article “Geology Applied to Petroleum” (1946). He rounded out his major published contributions as editor of and contributor to Volume VI of Science of Petroleum (1955).

Starting in 1921 and for part of every summer from 1928 to 1939. Illing did fieldwork in Venezuela. These studies led him to recommend the acquisition and development of properties on which the Mercedes and associated fields in the state of Guárico are located. During World War II he did further work in Trinidad and Venezuela related to Britain’s expanding oil needs. This led to an expansion of Trinidad’s oil supplies and, after the war, to the full development of the Mercedes area of Venezuela.

As a result of Illing’s enthusiasm, several of his banking friends were persuaded to set up an organization, later known as Caracas Petroleum Corporation, to further explore Venezuela. Illing advised the corporation on the selectionof concessions and directed gravity surveys, refraction and reflection surveys, and surface geological mapping. In the late 1930’s Caracas Petroleum Corporation was merged with Ultramar Company; Illing continued to contribute to Ultramar for many years.

In 1947 the British government asked Illing to arbitrate with the Mexican government over the payment due to the Mexican Eagle (Shell) Oil Company as compensation for the properties nationalized before World War II. Since the Mexican government insisted that the negotiations be strictly confidential. Illing took on the task alone. As a result of his efforts, a settlement was arranged and Illing gained the confidence and respect of the Mexican authorities. So well did he succeed in this endeavor that he later became adviser to Pemex, the governmentowned oil company of Mexico.

These and other activities firmly established Illing’s reputation as an oil authority throughout the world, and his services were much sought after. In 1950 he established the firm of V.C. Illing and partners, with offices close to Imperial College. Illing and his partners were consultants to the Gas Council of Great Britain on geological matters and to the government of Nigeria in connection with the development of the oil and gas fields of that country.

Illing joined the Geological Society of London in 1913 and served on its council from 1927 to 1928. In addition to the Lyell Fund (1918), he received many honors, including the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1944 and election to the Royal Society in 1945. He took a leading part in the organization and functioning of the petroleum geology sessions of the XVIIIth International Geological Congress at London in 1948. Illing joined the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 1934 and became the first geologist from England to be granted honorary membership (1961). He was elected an honorary associate of the Royal School of Mines in 1951 and a fellow of Imperial College in 1958. Upon his retirement in 1955, the senate of London University conferred on him the title of professor emeritus of geology (oil technology) at the University of London.

Illing’s ideas and principles of petroleum genesis and migration are accepted and quoted in numerous books and articles. He is reported to have had seemingly inexhaustible energy in the field. often walking twenty or thirty miles a day. His former students at Imperial College remember him as an inspiring lecturer and teacher of geology. Many of them went on to occupy positions of prominence in teaching and in the petroleum industry.


I. Original Works. Illing’s writings include “Paradoxidian Fauna of a Part of the Stockingford Shales.” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 71 (1915), 386–450; “The Search for Subterranean ‘Oil-Pools’ in the British Isles,” in Geological Magazine, 6 (1919). 290– 301; “The Migration of Oil and Natural Gas.” in Journal of the Institute of Petroleum Technology, 19 (1933), 229– 274; seven articles in Albert E. Dunstan et al., eds., The Science of Petroleum, I (Oxford, 1938); “The Origin of Petroleum,” 32–38, “Eastern Venezuela and Trinidad.” 106–110, written with Hans Kugler, “The Migration of Oil,” 209–215; “An Introduction to the Principles of the Accumulationof Petroleum,” 218–219, “The Origin of Pressure in Oilfields,” 224–229, “The Role of Faulting in the Accumulation of Oil and Gas,” 252–254, and “The Significanceof Surface Indications of Oil;” 294–296: “The Role of Stratigraphy in Oil Discovery,” in Bulletin of the Association of petroleum Geologists, 29 (1945), 872–884; and “Geology Applied to Petroleum,” in Oil Weekly, 122 (1946).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries of Illing are G. D.H., “Voncent Charles Illing F.R.S.,” in Journal of the Institute of Petroleum, 55 (1969), 422–424; N. L. Falcon, “Vincent Charles Illing,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society16 (1970), 365–384; and Hans G. Kugler, “Vincent Charles Illing,” in Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 54 (1970), 542–544, and Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, no 1644B (1971), 357–360.

Gerald M. Friedman

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Illing, Vincent Charles

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Illing, Vincent Charles