Forgotten women of Paleontology: Ava C. Ellisor


Alva C. Ellisor at her laboratory in 1946

At the beginning of 20th century, many universities started admitting women, with different motivations, including the lack of men following WWI and the Soviet Revolution. The oil and gas industry, long stereotyped as a male profession, also openned to women. In 1919, E. T. Dumble, vice-president and general manager of the Rio Bravo Oil Company, called the geology department at the University of California at Berkeley and asked Professor Bruce Clark for the name of his best man in paleontology. Clark said, “I haven’t a man, would a woman do?”. A year later, Dumble hired Esther Applin (née Richards). Almost at the same time, Wallace Prat, hired Alva Ellisor to build a paleontology department for Humble Oil Company. In 1921, Raymond Baker, from The Texas Company, hired Hedwig Kniker. As part of the consortium agreement between these companies, Richards, Ellisor and Kniker started working on macropaleontologic solutions to solve the Gulf Coast stratigraphy. Dumble believed that macrofossils were the key to understand the chaotic Tertiary stratigraphy of the Gulf Coast. But macrofossils were too badly broken to be identifiable as to species, so Ellisor and Richards turned their attention to the microfossils, especially foraminifera. It was the beggining of the micropaleontological revolution.

Hedwig Kniker, Esther Applin and Alva Ellisor. From Wikipedia

Alva Christine Ellisor was one of the first female stratigrapher in U.S. She was born on April 26, 1892, in Galveston, Texas. In 1915, she received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Geology from The University of Texas. After graduating, she taught science at Ball High School in Galveston. In 1918 Ellisor began working as a professor at the University of Texas. A year later, she worked as a geologist for the Kansas Geological Survey. In 1920 she began to work for Humble Oil & Refining Company, until her retirement in 1947.

Hedwig Kniker, Esther Richards and Alva Ellisor. From Gries, 2020

In 1924, at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), Alva Ellisor, Esther Applin née Richards, and Hedwig Kniker presented their seminal paper: Subsurface stratigraphy o f the Coastal Plain of Texas and Louisiana. Since then, Micropaleontology was quickly embraced by industry. However, the role of these women was downplayed over time, and by 1975 the credit for this technology was shifted to four men.

From left to right: Esther Richards, John Suman, James L. Ballard, Alva Ellisor at Hidalgo Bluff near the Brazos River Botton. (From R.R.Gries. 2018)

Ellisor was one of the founders of the Houston Geological Society in 1923. She was also one of the founding member of the Society of Economic Paleontology and Mineralogy (SEPM) in 1927, along with Richards and Kniker. In 1929 she was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. In 1962, she received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Geology Department of The University of Texas at Austin. Thomas Barrow, senior vice president at Exxon Corporation, remarked her contributions to the field: “Miss Ellisor not only had to prove to her company, but also to convince the rest of the geologic profession that micropaleontology was important”.

She died on September 22, 1964 in Galveston, Texas.


Richards Applin, Esther; Ellisor, Alva E.; Kniker, Hedwig T. (1925). “Subsurface Stratigraphy of the Coastal Plain of Texas and Louisiana”. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin. 9 (1): 79–122.

Gries, Robbie Rice (2018). “How female geologists were written out of history: The micropaleontology breakthrough”. Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come from, and Where Are We Going?. doi:10.1130/2018.1214(02).

Gries, R. R. (2020). Buried Discoveries of Early Female Petroleum Geologists. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, SP506–2019–216. doi:10.1144/sp506-2019-216 

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