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Karl Clark (1888-1966)

Dr. Karl Clark Very few individuals are as committed to their chosen profession as Karl Clark was. It was his focus and drive, as opposed to luck, that led him to discover the hot water method of separating oil from oilsands, a process of provincial and international significance.

Born to Malcolm and Adelaide Clark, October 28th, 1888, in Georgetown, Ontario, as a young boy Karl in no way appeared to be a scholar. His high school grades were unremarkable, save for his math and chemistry scores, which were marginally above average. At one point, he even asked his father to be given permission to quit school in order to find a job. Much chagrined at that idea, Clark’s father informed him that he would in fact be finishing high school, but after that, he was free to pursue whatever he wanted.

Clark attended Harbord Collegiate Institute in Toronto from 1900-1904. By 1910, he had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from McMaster University. He remained in Hamilton until 1912, when he was awarded a Master’s degree in chemistry. By 1915, Clark had graduated with a PhD, also in chemistry, from the University of Illinois.

Clark went on to work for the Canadian Geological Survey, Mining Department in Ottawa. His induction into the Athabaska oilsands came when he was asked to generate a precise and critical review of the Sidney C. Ells paper titled "Notes on Certain Aspects of the Proposed Commercial Development of the Deposits of Bituminous Sands in the Province of Alberta."

While he was developing his career, he also started a family. In 1919, he was married to Dora Anne Wolverton. The two had four children—Frances, Mary, Malcolm and Nancy.

ARCIn 1920, Clark left the Canadian Geological Survey for a position with the newly established Research Council of Alberta. He and his family moved to Alberta where he quickly and enthusiastically took up researching the Athabaska oilsands.

From 1920 and through the 1940s, Clark’s work with the Research Council of Alberta and the University of Alberta was seriously limited by a lack of funding. However, he managed to forge ahead in discovering numerous ways to improve oilsands extraction facilities. It was 1929 when he received the patent for the hot water extraction process for separating oil from oilsands. In 1949, a small-scale oil extraction plant was opened at Bitumount, near Fort McMurray. Only operational for a year or so, the plant has since been designated a provincial historic site.

"Tar Sands Legacy" by Mary Clark Sheppard

During the 1930s, the Research Council of Alberta was suspended and Clark became a professor at the University of Alberta Mining and Metallurgy Department. In 1945, he was appointed head of the department, a post he maintained until he returned to the Research Council of Alberta as a consultant in 1954. The following year, Clark was the recipient of the Gold Medal Award of the Professional Institute of the Public Services of Canada for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Applied Science.

While Clark officially retired in 1964, he continued to consult with Great Canadian Oil Sands, which later became Suncor, whose plant, completed between 1964 and 1968, was the first large scale facility to succeed in the commercial extraction of oil from the oilsands.

Once Clark finally retired it was 1964, he was 76 years old and he and his wife Dora moved to Saanichton, British Columbia. He died two years later in Victoria.

Clark’s process for separating oil from oilsands was a revolutionary moment in Alberta innovation. It was this process that laid the groundwork for the methods used today.


Heritage Trail: Athabasca Oilsands, Early Exploration
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