Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Nasr, Sami Nicolas (1913–1995)

by Sam G. Everingham

This article was published online in 2019

Sami Nicolas Nasr (1913–1995), geologist and oil executive, was born on 4 October 1913 at Jerusalem, youngest child of Arab parents Elias Nicola Nasr and his wife Afifeh. Sami was baptised into the Greek Orthodox Church. Graduating from the Collège Des Frères, Jerusalem, with an International Baccalaureate in 1931, Sami completed further studies at the University of London. In 1935 he commenced studies in geological engineering at the New Mexico School of Mines, Albuquerque, United States of America (BSc, 1938).

Returning to the Middle East, Nasr began work as one of the few Arab geologists for the Iraq Petroleum Company Ltd (IPC), a powerful British, Dutch, French, and American joint venture that owned numerous oil concessions in the Middle East. He rose swiftly through the organisation, surveying in Palestine and Jordan, and becoming IPC’s divisional geologist. On 10 September 1948 he married Constance (Connie) Mary Sittlington (d. 1988), a matron at the Quaker hospital at Gaza, in a civil ceremony at the British Legation, Amman; they were to have no children. From 1949 he was posted to Iraq, first as resident geologist at Ain Zalah for Mosul Petroleum Ltd, and then as divisional geologist for Basrah Petroleum Ltd. He became King Faisal II of Iraq’s scientific advisor and was regularly called to the palace to give advice.

Between 1954 and 1959 Nasr was responsible for the technical departments of Mosul and Basrah Petroleum’s oilfields. During the 1958 revolution most of the Iraqi royal family were murdered and a nationalist government took power. In March 1959 Nasr, now exploration manager for IPC in Baghdad, was arrested and pressured to implicate IPC in a failed counter-insurgency. He refused to cooperate. Interned for a month and destined to be hanged, he was released as a result of his determined wife’s haranguing of the revolutionary leader Abd al-Karīm Qāsim and financial incentives from IPC.

With his real estate, shares, and bank accounts confiscated, Nasr and his wife fled from the country. Unable to return to Palestine, at Baghdad airport he encountered Turkey’s ambassador, with whom he pleaded for help, securing safe passage via Istanbul to his wife’s homeland of Ireland. While remaining on the IPC payroll he studied at Trinity College Dublin (MSc, 1961); his thesis was titled ‘The Economic Geology of the Oil Fields of Northern Iraq, Ain Zalah and Butmah Fields.’ The changed political climate made his monarchist links a liability, and IPC terminated his contract, although arranging a generous pay-out and lifelong pension.

‘Suave and urbane, dignified and courteous’ (Flower 1995, 14), and fluent in both English and Arabic, Nasr had extensive global oil connections. However, after failing in 1961 to secure an alternative senior role in the Middle East, he begrudgingly accepted a two-year contract in Australia with the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics, spearheading geological surveying. Soon he moved to Ampol Exploration Ltd as exploration manager and chief geologist. Always inspired by ‘the thrill of the … chase’ (Flower 1995, 14), he stimulated Ampol’s oil and gas discoveries and commercialisation in Western Australia, New South Wales, and north Queensland. In May 1964 he officiated at the spudding (initial drilling) ceremony on Barrow Island, off the north-west coast of Australia. Before long, oil flowed—the first of dozens of wells that would produce millions of barrels.

Nasr joined the board of Ampol Exploration Ltd in 1965. A founding member (1966) of the Sydney branch of the Institute of Petroleum, he was chairman from 1968. The same year he was promoted to general manager (exploration and production) of the Ampol Group. In the next decade he oversaw petroleum exploration in the Pacific Ocean, north Queensland, and Tonga, and encouraged Ampol to invest in asbestos mining in New South Wales and minerals exploration in Western Australia. He led the Australian delegation at the four-yearly World Petroleum Congresses from 1967 to 1991.

In 1973 Nasr was awarded honorary life membership of the Institute of Petroleum’s Sydney branch. Departing from Ampol in 1978, he founded Cluff Oil (Australia) NL with Algy Cluff, becoming managing director and a board member in 1979. Within two years, the company’s share price had quadrupled and the business was sold. He continued his association with Cluff, who with Nasr formed Cluff Oil (Pacific) Ltd, and played a leading role in negotiating ultimately unviable oil leases for Cluff off the coast of China in the early 1980s; Nasr was also a member of the board of the British parent company. With Cluff Resources he was involved in exploration and development of gold resources in New South Wales prior to his retirement in 1989.

Among the organisations to gain from Nasr’s expertise was the Earth Resources Foundation within the University of Sydney (council member, 1978–81). In his final years he suffered dementia and heart disease. He died on 17 November 1995 at home at Balgowlah Heights, survived by his second partner, Judith Helen Andrews; he was buried in Frenchs Forest lawn cemetery. Never naturalised as Australian, he had maintained his Irish citizenship. A wily and prolific offshore share investor, he had been able in 1993 to donate more than 2.3 million euros to Trinity College Dublin, which led in 2001 to the opening of its multidisciplinary Sami Nasr Institute of Advanced Materials.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Women’s Weekly. ‘The Quiet Irish Nurse.’ 30 May 1962, 9
  • Flower, John M. ‘Slick “Cat” Gave Us the Drum When It Came to Oil.’ Australian, 30 November 1995, 14
  • Nasr Papers. Private collection
  • Petroleum Gazette. ‘Sami Nasr: Australia’s One-Man “Multinational”.’ 30, no. 4 (1995): 39
  • Wilkinson, Rick. Where God Never Trod: Australia’s Explorers Across Two Centuries. Windsor, Qld: Christopher Beck Books, 2000

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sam G. Everingham, 'Nasr, Sami Nicolas (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nasr-sami-nicolas-27620/text35041, published online 2019, accessed online 7 July 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020