Oral history interview with Jack B. St. Clair

Oral history interview with Jack B. St. Clair

  • 1995-Feb-07

Jack B. St. Clair begins with a description of his background and early childhood in Roanoke, Virginia, where his extended family was involved with the railroad. His father's work with the Public Health Service in 1931 led the family to Shreveport, Louisiana, a center for the oil and gas industry, where St. Clair was first exposed to engineering. Excelling in science and math, he won several scholarships and with the guidance of his high school principal decided upon chemical engineering studies at Tulane University. He graduated in 1940 and accepted a position as technical trainee, gas department, at Shell Oil Company's Houston, Texas refinery. During World War II, he worked in sulfuric acid alkylation and toluene extraction plants and was promoted to control laboratory assistant manager. In 1945 he became assistant manager, manufacturing technological department, New York, then moved to the Wood River, Illinois refinery, where he advanced through a series of assistant managerships before becoming department manager of catalytic reforming, gaining experience with facilities' operations and later with design work through his 1954 return to New York as assistant manager, head office, manufacturing technical department. Despite the lack of formal training, St. Clair readily accepted increasing responsibilities, recognizing he was being groomed for higher management. In 1956 he was sent to the Martinez, California refinery as assistant superintendent and undertook a six-month study of the outlook for West coast operations. The study and ensuing arguments proved good training for St. Clair, whose next position was plant superintendent in Wilmington, California; with responsibility for all operations, he acquired experience with government and environmental concerns. After briefly serving as Houston refinery superintendent, he followed mentor H. M. L. Love's urging and reluctantly moved to England as Shell International Petroleum Company, North American Division head. In this and subsequent positions as New York Head Office general manager, he interacted with top Shell executives, acquiring experience which proved key to his success. In 1965 he became a Brookings Institution public affairs fellow, gaining training and insight in government-business interactions through assignments with the U. S. Interior and Congress. He returned to Shell Transportation and Supplies as general manager then vice president, but was quickly promoted to Shell Chemical Company president in 1967, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1979. As president he undertook a major reorganization, focusing on expanding olefins business and integrating the oil and chemical sides of the company; his success is reflected in growth in sales and profits at Shell Chemical during his presidency. Here St. Clair describes relationships with Shell Oil Presidents H. Bridges and J. F. Bookout, the energy crisis, and Shell's experience with detergents and Saudi Arabian crude oil. Also discussed are fragmentation and government control in the chemical industry; the EPA; and creativity, innovation, and new technology. The interview ends with reflections on St. Clair's Society of Chemical Industry and Tulane University awards and a description of his children's careers.

Place of interview
Original file type MP3, PDF
  • 56 pages
  • 03:04:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.

Physical location

Physical container
  • Shelfmark QD22.S735 A5 1995

Interviewee biographical information

  • August 17, 1919
  • Roanoke, Virginia, United States
  • April 14, 2019
  • Houston, Texas, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1940 Tulane University BS Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Shell Oil Company

  • 1940 to 1944 Technologist, Houston Refinery
  • 1944 to 1945 Assistant Manager, Control Laboratory, Houston Refinery
  • 1945 to 1948 Assistant Manager, Manufacturing Technological Department, Head Office, Design of Fluid Catalytic Crackers (New York)
  • 1948 to 1949 Senior Technologist, Wood River Refinery
  • 1949 to 1950 Assistant Manager, Lubricant Department, Wood River Refinery
  • 1950 to 1952 Assistant Manager, Gas Department, Wood River Refinery
  • 1952 to 1953 Assistant Manager, Cracking Department, Wood River Refinery
  • 1953 to 1954 Department Manager, Aromatics, Wood River Refinery
  • 1954 to 1956 Manufacturing Technological Department, Head Office, Assistant Manager
  • 1956 to 1958 Assistant Superintendent, Martinez Refinery
  • 1958 to 1961 Superintendent, Wilmington-Dominiquez Refinery
  • 1961 Superintendent, Houston Refinery
  • 1963 to 1965 Manufacturing Organization, Head Office General Manager
  • 1965 to 1966 Transportation & Supplies, Head Office General Manager
  • 1966 to 1967 Vice President, Transportation & Supplies
  • 1967 to 1979 Director
  • 1975 Executive Vice President, Manufacturing-Transportation-Marketing
  • 1975 to 1979 Executive Vice President, Products

Shell International Petroleum Company

  • 1961 to 1963 Head, North American Division

Brookings Institution

  • 1965 Public Affairs Fellow

Shell Chemical Company

  • 1967 to 1979 President


Year(s) Award
1975 Outstanding Alumnus, School of Engineering, Tulane University
1977 Distinguished Alumnus Award, Tulane University
1978 Chemical Industry Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
1980 Doctor of Science, Tulane University

Cite as

Jack B. St. Clair, interviewed by James J. Bohning in Houston, Texas on February 7, 1995. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0135. Science History Institute. Philadelphia. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/b7yaz99.

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PDF — 276 KB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

7 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads