Public Release: 

Research project to chronicle life of oil magnate 'Mr. 5 Percent'

University of Southampton


IMAGE: This is Calouste Gulbenkian. view more

Credit: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has awarded the University of Southampton £300, 000 to research and write the biography of its founder. Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) was a businessman, art collector and philanthropist whose crucial role in the oil industry helped to create such modern industry names as Shell and Total.

The University's Dr Jonathan Conlin, who will write the biography - supported by a post-doctoral research assistant - says: "Calouste Gulbenkian's business interests were global, his collecting of art and his philanthropic vision were equally ambitious in scope. Yet little has been written about his life to date. Creating this biography will require extensive research and travel, making this a particularly exciting and challenging opportunity."

Calouste Gulbenkian was a talented diplomatist and businessman who worked closely with the British, French, American, Iranian and Iraqi governments - helping to shape the Middle East and its oil industries in the first half of the 20th century. He attracted the nickname of 'Mr Five Percent' for the five percent share of Iraqi oil production he secured in the early 1900s. He also held a passion for art and assembled an eclectic and unique collection, now totalling over 6,000 pieces, influenced by his travels and personal taste.

In the latter part of his life, Gulbenkian lived in Portugal, where upon his death he endowed the charity that bears his name. Today the Gulbenkian Foundation is one of the world's most important philanthropic institutions, which has sponsored innovative projects in the arts, education, and social policy for over 50-years.

The project to write a biography of Gulbenkian is an ambitious one as the reach of his commercial and diplomatic activities extended from Mexico and Venezuela to Iran and Russia.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation President, Artur Santos Silva, comments: "We are pleased that a scholar of Dr Conlin's distinction will be undertaking this important work and we are offering him our full cooperation and full access to our founder's papers."

Martin Essayan, the great grandson of Calouste Gulbenkian and trustee of the Foundation, says: "Much of what has been written about Calouste Gulbenkian has been anecdotal and he is often referred to as a "mystery" and yet there are extensive archives available and much interest in him. There is a real need for a work of serious scholarship accessible to the general reader."

The award has been welcomed by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton Professor Don Nutbeam: "I am delighted that the University will be working with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on the biography of this key figure in the history of the oil industry. I hope this project will give us the opportunity to forge new, strong links with the Foundation for the future."

The three-year project will begin in February 2013 and it's hoped the book will be published by 2019, in time for the 150th anniversary of Calouste Gulbenkian's birth.


Notes for editors:

1) The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.

With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Institute for Life Sciences, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus.

2) The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is a European charitable foundation established in Portugal in 1956 with cultural, educational, social and scientific interests. Its founder, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, was an Armenian born in Turkey. Multicultural and multilingual, and a noted art collector, he spent his career bringing people from different cultures and nationalities together. Headquartered in Lisbon with branches in London and Paris, we are in a privileged position of being able to address national and transnational issues and to act as an 'exchange' for ideas.

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