John Saunders (Date of Birth: 3rd Nov 1928)

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 2

John Saunders made a great and lasting contribution to the study of the micropalaeontology and geology of Trinidad and Tobago. His pioneering work helped to develop the energy industry in this country. He also embarked on oceanic expeditions and braved the forests of the Caribbean and South America to collect samples and conduct research on the geology of the region. Saunders’ papers and excursion guides raised the profile of the Lesser Antilles, playing a part in making it the best-studied accretionary prism1 in the world at that time.

John Baverstock Saunders was born on 3rd November, 1928 in Essex, England. He attended Tiffins Boys’ School in Kingston-upon-Thames. He earned a County Scholarship to University College London and graduated with an honours degree in geology in 1951, specialising in Palaeontology and Stratigraphy.2

In 1951, Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd (later obtained by Texaco) employed him as a palaeontologist and field geologist at Barrackpore, transferring him in 1952 to the Geological Laboratory in Pointe-a-Pierre, where he met the “Father of Trinidad Geology”, Dr Hans Kugler. With Kugler as his mentor, Saunders zealously took part in every geological mapping and oil-finding excursion possible, even after his 1958 promotion to Senior Statigrapher. After Kugler’s departure in 1959, he filled the role of mentor to many junior geologists and micropalaeontologists who drew from his experience in the field. Between 1964 and 1965, Saunders was the Technical Secretary of the Fourth Caribbean Geological Conference and, in 1968, he joined the Standing Committee that successfully maintains the Conference’s continuity to the present day.

In 1966, Saunders led the Canadian research vessel Hudson on excursions in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. He taught a Geology for Engineers course at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine between 1968 and 1970. He was promoted to Chief Stratigrapher for Texaco Latin America and Trinidad and Tobago in 1969 and was Chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Branch of the Institute of Petroleum from 1970 to 1975. In 1975, he spent a two-month period as Co-Chief Scientist at the Deep Sea Drilling Project Glomar Challenger Leg 15 Survey, which was vital in clarifying the plate tectonics3 of the Caribbean.

In 1975, Saunders became the Curator of Micropalaeontology at the Natural History Museum of Basel, Switzerland, where Kugler had promoted the archiving of Caribbean research since 1959. Saunders co-established the Micropalaeontological Reference Collection, which today contains tens of thousands of international geological specimens. Between 1978 and 1980, he led government-funded expeditions into the Dominican Republic. He contributed to and co-edited Plankton Stratigraphy in 1985, and Benthic Foraminiferal Biostratigraphy of the South Caribbean in 1955, milestone works involving well-known experts from around the world. Saunders retired from the Museum in 1994.

While in Trinidad, Saunders was an ornithology enthusiast and member of the Trinidad Field Naturalists’ Club. He lectured to schools on its behalf and was honorary Game Warden for Trinidad and Tobago from 1960 to 1975. He also recorded the first sighting of the snakebird raising a brood in Trinidad in 1996. His skills at piloting allowed him to contribute aerial photos to Richard ffrench’s Birds of Trinidad and Tobago and also to extensively document and photograph most of Trinidad’s mud volcanoes – both on and offshore.

He produced a stratigraphic lexicon for Trinidad and Tobago, updated the Geological Map of Trinidad prepared by Kugler, and coordinated the Steering Committee for the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, which issued the Map in 1998.

John Saunders is an honorary member of the Geological Society of Trinidad and Tobago.




  1. When two oceanic plates collide, one may be forced under the other. Debris from the lower plate, produced by the scraping of the plates, collects into a pile. As it grows, this pile of debris forms a ridge called an accretionary prism.
  2. The study of the origin, composition, distribution and succession of geological strata (layers of rock)
  3. The theory that describes the earth’s surface as divided into flat sections called “plates” which float on a sea of molten rock called the mantle. When these plates make contact, earthquakes may occur and volcanoes may erupt.