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John Norris Montgomery (1889–1963)

by Robert Murray

This article was published:

John Norris Montgomery (1889-1963), geologist and oil explorer, was born on 1 September 1889 at Wedderburn, Victoria, son of Australian-born parents William Alexander Montgomery, bank manager, and his wife Isabel Ellinor Dorothy, née Shimmin. John was educated at Pleasant Street State School, Ballarat, and at the Ballarat School of Mines (on a scholarship). After studying metallurgy, mining engineering and geology, and working as a geological-assistant, he obtained an assayer's certificate in 1910. Next year he moved to the Bairnsdale School of Mines where he lectured in mathematics and demonstrated in chemistry and assaying.

In 1917 Montgomery joined an exploration party to Upoia, Papua, which was sponsored by the Commonwealth government and led by Arthur Wade. The search for oil in Papua and New Guinea became his life's work. A member of the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.'s geological expedition in 1920, he began detailed mapping of the Hohoro area; he later surveyed the coastal region of the Gulf of Papua—working north-westward from Yule Island—and a large part of the country between Madang and the border with Netherlands New Guinea. At the Independent Church, Melbourne, on 12 October 1920 he had married Violet White with Congregational forms.

Montgomery transformed his basic geological training with on-the-job experience in Albania, Yugoslavia, Venezuela and Persia (Iran). He studied at the Royal College of Science, London, then returned to Papua in 1929 as second-in-command to B. K. N. Wyllie of Anglo-Persian; they carried out an intensive examination of the region around Port Moresby, inland as far as Rouna Falls, and along the coast from Bootless Inlet to Yule Island. When the Australian government decided to suspend geological investigations in Papua, Montgomery left Port Moresby in November. Employed (from 1934) by Oil Search Ltd, he worked for that Australian firm in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. In 1938 he was appointed deputy chief geologist of the newly formed Australasian Petroleum Co. Pty Ltd.

Small, rather fussy, and precise in manner, 'Monty' (as he was nicknamed) was one of the tiny band of Australians who became petroleum explorers in a period when it was believed that there was little prospect of discovering oil in Australia. Their long search in the rugged jungles did not prove very successful, but it did engage the interest and capital of oil companies for many years, and contributed significantly to an understanding of the geology of Papua and New Guinea. During World War II Montgomery worked in Australasian Petroleum's Melbourne office, compiling and reviewing data; he also acted as a technical adviser to the United States Army. He stayed with the company until his retirement in 1959.

Montgomery was joint author of two important publications on the geology of Papua and New Guinea. In 1945 he was elected to the Royal Society of Victoria. Survived by his wife and younger son, he died on 3 November 1963 in Melbourne and was cremated. His elder son John was killed in action in 1944 while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Select Bibliography

  • The Oil Exploration Work in Papua and New Guinea Conducted by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company on Behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1920-29, vol 1 (Lond, 1930)
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 77 (1964)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1929, 3 July 1936, 15 Nov 1938
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Montgomery, John Norris (1889–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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