Distinguished Alumni: William Fisher embarked on successful geology career thanks to trouble with chemistry

Looking at the sum of his career, William Fisher attributes many of his accomplishments to a crucial conversation during his college years.

Initially, Fisher was intent on a biochemistry major as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University. That is, until a professor (who just happened to grow up on a wheat farm in Kansas) said he didn’t think Fisher was cut out for chemistry. Fisher was surprised, even more so by what his professor said next.

“That was quite a shock to me. And he said, ‘Well, I’m not [cut out for it] either. I’m pursuing a degree in geology. You ought to go and talk to the people over there.’ That was the beginning of my junior year,” Fisher said. “So I transferred to geology. And have enjoyed it ever since.”BillFisher

That piece of advice has led to a career throughout the last 54 years in which Fisher has contributed broadly and frequently to the field. To name just a few, he and colleagues introduced what is now a standard concept for oil and gas exploration; he led the establishment of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas; and he has served as an advisor in numerous federal and state posts and panels.

In recognition of his contributions, Fisher has been selected as a 2014-’15 Distinguished Alumnus of the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

In the fall of 1956 Fisher was drawn to the University of Kansas to study with one of the most renowned geologists of his time, Raymond Moore. LIFE magazine once recognized Moore as “one of the brightest minds in the world.”

“He was one of the top stratigraphers and paleontologists of his time and maybe all time. And so that was the attraction for an opportunity to come to KU and study with him,” Fisher said.

By 1960, Fisher was on the job market as a KU graduate with a master’s and doctorate in geology. He took a position at the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology and has since served in the bureau and the geology program as a dean, director, chair, professor and policy advisor at the state and federal level.

“One of the things I learned from Ray Moore was he worked hard and expected every around him to work hard. And the ability to work hard and discipline yourself opens up all kinds of opportunities in the university,” he said.


Fisher’s work resulted in significant growth for programs at the University of Texas. As director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, he led efforts to raise its profile and resources to become one of the best known geological research organizations in the U.S. and abroad. He also played the principal role in establishing the Jackson School of Geosciences in 2005, securing an incredible $270 million gift.

In addition to contributions to higher education, Fisher has made an impact in the field of geology through research, mentorship and public service.

Fisher and colleagues introduced a concept called depositional systems, which aids in identification of rock layers and resources below the surface. Such analysis is crucial in oil and gas exploration, where understanding the formation and natural laws of sub-surface rocks allows for more accurate predictions. Since its introduction in 1967, the concept has become the main benchmark for stratigraphy and sedimentology.

Fisher’s specialization in petroleum geology, which has continued throughout his career, stemmed in part from his surroundings.

“If you were leading a major geological program in Texas you became an oil and gas person whether you wanted to or not. Oil and gas have long been major parts of the economy as it is indeed in Kansas,” Fisher said.

The network of influence Fisher has had through mentorship is extensive. He has supervised more than 130 graduate students, many of whom have become mentors themselves. His students have also been selected for top industry and government positions, at organizations including Brazilian energy giant Petrobras, Thailand Gas Authority, Venezuela’s state oil company, as well as oil and energy producers in the U. S.

In his advisory roles, Fisher has contributed to policy considerations of U.S. energy resource development, assessment and environmental impact.

He was appointed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford as assistant secretary of energy and minerals in the Department of Interior. Decades of appointments to advisory committees and testimony to Congress followed. He has presented testimony on more than 100 occasions to the U.S. Congress and Texas Legislature. Fisher served on the White House Science Council under President Ronald Reagan.

His service to the federal government carried through a notable period in U.S. energy history.

“Much of it was done back in the ’70s and ’80s when energy and the concerns about oil and gas availability were very high. The OPEC embargo occurred,” he said. “[I was] trying to impart to Congress what were some of the geologic and scientific factors that were basic to policy issues that they were considering.”

Colleagues have recognized Fisher’s contributions by inducting him as a member of the National Academy of Engineering and awarding him both the Powers Medal and the Twenhofel medal, the highest awards of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the Society for Sedimentary Geology. He has also been elected to the highest positions in the most prominent national geoscience organizations. Such accolades are reserved for the most productive and respected scientists in the field, making his impact all the more evident.

And to think, it all started when a professor said he wasn’t doing so well in class.