Remembering Marlan

Obituary for the Legendary Marlan W. Downey

Marlan Wayne Downey was born in Falls City, Nebraska, on October 2, 1931, the oldest child of Wayne and Elizabeth Downey. He was predeceased by a younger brother, Gerry (Red). His sister, Carol Werner, survives him. After graduating from Falls City High School at age 16 he attended Peru State College for his first degree, in Chemistry.

He was inducted into the U.S. Army on the day he graduated from college and served in an artillery unit during the Korean War. After two years of enlistment service and an honorable discharge, he attended the University of Nebraska under the GI Bill, earning a BA and a Masters in Geology. His first work as a geologist was in hard rock geology – gold mining in South Dakota – during the summer break but switched to oil and gas and a job with Shell on graduation.

Marlan Downey at ShellMarlan Downey had a thirty-year career with Shell Oil in research and management. Marlan became Shell’s youngest-ever Chief Geologist, led Shell’s Alaska Division; then organized and headed Shell’s Pecten International Company, with major discoveries and developments in Cameroon, Syria, Canada, Malaysia, and Brazil, retiring in 1987. He was also Chairman of the Board of Amigos de las Americas during his time in Houston.

After Shell, Marlan was a director, consultant and special advisor to numerous oil and gas companies across the country and internationally and made a profound contribution to the oil and gas industry especially in the evolution of shale exploration and production. Marlan was responsible for the seminal work on producing oil and gas from shales that was occurring while he was the head of the “Origin and Migration of Hydrocarbons” research project at Shell’s Bellaire Research Lab. He continued to lead the charge on exploring for and producing oil and gas from unconventional resources the remainder of his life.

After a brief retirement from Shell during which he founded Roxanna Oil Company, a family oil and gas business, Marlan joined Atlantic Richfield and served as President of ARCO International. Retiring from ARCO at age 65, he resumed his work with Roxanna and assumed the Bartell Chair as Professor of Geoscience at the University of Oklahoma. There he was Chief Scientist and Chairman of the Sarkeys Energy Center for three years. For his services to the University and his students, Marlan was made an honorary University of Oklahoma Alumnus, which Marlan considered quite an achievement for a graduate of the University of Nebraska. In addition, he taught courses and seminars at SMU where his students included his sons, SMU undergraduates, and senior oil and gas executives in Dallas.

Marlan was a former President of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and was honored by the AAPG as “A Living Legend in the Oil and Gas Business.” In 2005, the Petroleum History Foundation honored him as a “Legendary Oil Finder”. In 2002, he received the R. H. Dott award for best geological publication and in 2003 he received the Hedberg Medal for his distinguished international scientific service.

In 2009 he was awarded the AAPG’s highest honor, the Sidney Powers Medal in recognition of his distinguished and outstanding contributions to, or achievements in, petroleum geology, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in his field.

Over the years, Marlan helped and collaborated with numerous students and professionals on their research projects and continued to author papers himself on various geological and explorational topics.

Marlan was a Senior Fellow of the Institute for the study of Earth and Man (ISEM) at SMU. He was an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Fellow of the Geological Society of London. In 1987, President Biya of Cameroon knighted Marlan for his services to that country. He continued to serve on the boards of several energy companies and remained Chairman of Roxanna Oil Company, the family business, as it grew and prospered.

Marlan Downey and all his children Marlan Downey and all his children at their ranch.

Marlan lived in Dallas with his wife, Marea. He enjoyed time at their cottage in England and their ranch north of Dallas.

His hobby was blacksmithing, specializing in custom knives and spurs. Marlan supported a wide range of charitable activities of his wife and children with his time and resources. He was very proud of the work each of them was doing in their respective fields.

Despite his many achievements and accolades he remained modest about his accomplishments, and was ever eager to encourage, befriend and mentor young people, inspiring and teaching many in the field of geology and management. His advice to others was to keep learning, no matter how old one might be – and he led by example.

Marlan had the ambition to outlive his grandfather who died at 102. Sadly for all, he passed away on May 29, Memorial Day. However, his last conscious moments of a well-lived life were spent cheerfully talking about his full range of interests but especially of his pleasure and pride in his family during lunch with a longtime friend. We can all take comfort from knowing that he has left us with many pleasant memories at the height of his intellectual powers and still sharing his insight and wisdom with others.

Marlan DowneyHis family laid the beloved geologist and patriarch to rest in the earth on Thursday, June 1, 2017 in a private family service in Dallas. His wife, Marea, and all his children, Donald, Julie, Karen, Justin, Alex and Nicholas, survive him.

If any of his friends would like to make a charitable donation to a memorial fund set up on behalf of Marlan, to be used for scholarships in the field of geology, please contact Marea Downey at and she will be pleased to give further details.