Memorial to James Millard Kirby
BARBARA KIRBY PRICER
P.O. Box 116, Meadow Valley, California 95956
Jim Kirby was well known and respected throughout the
petroleum-producing brotherhood. He was proud of the
fact that he had made important contributions to the
industry on every continent except Antarctica.
In the early days of his career he was often the first to
utilize new instruments and techniques—techniques that
are now considered to be primitive. He often said that in
looking back over his long career, he spent his happiest
years in the fields and hills of the San Joaquin and Sacra-
mento valleys, with just his plane table, map board, and
At the age of 15, Kirby left his home in Corona,
California, to make his way in the world, as had his five
siblings. He went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad as a
telegraph operator. In 1918 he enlisted in the U.S. Army
Signal Corps and served in France as a telephone lineman at Chateau Thierry, at St. Mihiel, and
on the Champagne–Mont Blanc fronts. Wounded in October of 1918, a few weeks before the
armistice was signed, he was never returned to active duty.
Following his discharge from the Army in 1919, he was encouraged by a vocational
advisor from the Department of Veterans Affairs to return to high school, where he met his
future wife, Marjorie Parker. Before the end of his junior year at Santa Barbara High School, he
was contacted again and urged to make up a required science credit at summer school and to
challenge the Stanford University entrance exams. He then entered that institution as a
freshman, never having been a senior in either of the high schools he had attended.
Kirby graduated with the Stanford class of 1924, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a
degree in petroleum geology. He worked for a few months, “learning the oil business the hard
way,” as he explained it, “with a pick and shovel, as swamper for the mule-skinner, as derrick-
man in the clean-out-gang, and as a pumper and fireman in the boiler house—all for $5.00 a
day, every day.”
At last he got a “real” geological job with the Standard Oil Company and spent the next
two decades doing what he enjoyed most—working outdoors, always under the aegis of Stan-
dard. He worked in California with Standard, with the California Company in Denver, and in
Calgary with Standard Oil Company of British Columbia, which became the Dominion Oil
Company, Ltd., later to be known as the California Standard Company.
In 1950, he was selected as a member of a four-man team of geologists from Standard of
California and the Texas Company to appraise the oil potential of a huge concession in Western
Australia. Exploration operations began there in 1952, as the Western Australia Petroleum Party,
From 1952 until 1957 Kirby served as exploration supervisor for American Overseas
Petroleum, Ltd. (AMOSEAS), which was a joint company of SOCAL and Texaco, operating in
Geological Society of America Memorials, v. 30, August 1999 31
32 THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA
the Eastern Hemisphere. From 1957 to 1962, he was managing director of WAPET, with head-
quarters in Perth.
James Kirby retired in 1964 from a relatively short assignment as exploration manager in
Lagos, Nigeria. He and Marjorie built a home near St. Helena, in the Napa Valley of California.
Marjorie passed away in 1971, and after a few years alone Jim married Letha Tinder. They
enjoyed more than 20 years together before Letha, too, passed on, leaving him alone again, in
At the age of 97, James Kirby passed away, in his own apartment, having informed an
attendant that he thought he would dispense with breakfast and “just go back to sleep for a
while.” Thus ended the long life of a petroleum industry pioneer.
Printed in U.S.A. on Recycled Paper 8/99