Geology Can Be Field For Women
Mrs. Nelson finds career fascinating
KAY NELSON carries rocks around in her car like other women carry groceries, and no wonder, for she is a geologist. With her classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Mrs. Nelson soon will be off on strenuous field trips to study Wisconsin's more spectacular rocks.
Yet if one were to select from a social gathering the woman most likely to be a geologist, it would hardly be Mrs. Nelson, the wife of attorney Frank Nelson, 2569 N. Wahl av.
Diffident, unassuming, with pretty blue eyes, a gentle manner and a soft voice, she has nothing in her aspect of the crisp career woman or the schoolteacher. Nothing to suggest that she took her Ph.D. in geology at Rutgers university, that she once "sat on an oil well" in Texas, or that she regularly leads her students all over the rugged face of Wisconsin.
Daughter of an army officer, she was born in California, grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., and went to Vassar college. She studied geology to avoid math and enjoyed it so much that she went on to advanced studies at Rutgers.
After graduation she wrote to 50 colleges asking for a teaching job. That was during the "great" depression and jobs were hard to get, but she had four offers. She accepted the one from Milwaukee Downer college and taught there for five years.
World War II came and Kay saw her chance to do field work, since oil companies were losing men to the services. She went to Midland, Tex., with the Shell Oil Co.
"But still I wasn't working in the field," she recalled. "They kept men in the field and put women in the laboratory."
When a better offer came from the smaller Hunt Oil Co. a year and a half later, she took it and was able to combine field and lab work.
To "sit on an oil well," she explained, means to be on call at any hour of the day or night. Usually she stayed at a hotel 17 miles from the well, but when she thought an oil strike might be imminent, she would sleep in her car. Even in her sleep she listened to the sound of drilling and awoke when any slight variation in the sound indicated that the drill had reached a different layer of rock.
On her first night in Midland she was awakened at 4 a.m. by a knock on the door. A man she had never seen before had come to summon the lady geologist (only 3% of the country's geologists are women) because a core, a rock sample, was to be taken.
"There was really no hurry, because it takes two to three hours to pull the pipe in 30 foot sections out of the well. And average wells were then five to six thousand feet deep," she said. (Now wells are 15,000 and 20,000 feet deep.)
The teacher-geologist became a specialist in a tiny, one celled animal called a fusulinid, whose fossil is a signpost on the way to oil. If she found the fossil at the right depth, she knew the rock structure might merit further drilling. If it appeared lower than usual, that meant there was no use in going on.
Field work was fun, but Kay made more discoveries in the lab. After three adventuresome years in Texas, she rejoined the Downer faculty.
"The pay was less but the surroundings were nicer," and that pleased her feminine heart. She remembers the oil jobs with pleasure but prefers the variety offered by college teaching.
Mrs. Nelson now has classes in geology and physical geography at the state university here, and hopes to see a full fledged geology department established some day. October is her busy month for field trips. On Oct. 10 and 11 she will tour Wisconsin with the Tri State Field conference, a group of geologists from Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. A 200 mile trip through the Kettle Moraine is planned for her geology class on Oct. 24. The final Saturday of the month will see her traveling about 300 miles in the Devil's lake area with her physical geography class.
Kay Nelson now combines home and career. She and her husband met at a geological society meeting (both are past presidents) and married after a long friendship.
"Geologists are never in a hurry," she said with a smile, "because they figure time in the thousands of years."
She considers herself "not very domestic" but is known at Walrus club potluck suppers for her elegant "festival desserts." Club members were surprised to learn of her adventures in the oil business when Mr. Nelson, a past president of the club, drafted his geologist wife to speak at a meeting.
Professional honors are not lacking. Mrs. Nelson was the first and only woman president of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Art and Letters. She is a fellow of the Geological Society of America, and belongs to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Paleontological society.
THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL Friday, October 2, 1959 page 10