Ellen Churchill Semple

Summary

Ellen Churchill Semple († May 8, 1932 in West Palm Beach, Florida) was an American geographer. She was a pioneer in American geography and was the first woman elected president of the Association of American Geographers.

She made a significant contribution to the early development of geography in the United States, particularly human geography, and is best known for her work in the field of human geography and environmentalism and the debate over environmental determinism.

Her work contributed to shifting the focus of geography beyond the physical features of the earth to human aspects. Her innovative approaches and theories had an impact not only on human geography as a major field of geography, but also on other social science disciplines such as history and anthropology.

Semple was the youngest of five children. Her mother was Emerine Price, her father Alexander Bonner. In her childhood she was taught by her mother and by private tutors.

Semple followed her sister, Patty Semple, to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, where she graduated at the top of her class and the youngest member of her graduating class. In 1882, at the age of 19, she earned her bachelor”s degree in history from Vassar College and earned her master”s degree in history there in 1891. On a visit to London, she became aware of the work of Friedrich Ratzel and became interested in geography. She went to Leipzig to study with Ratzel at the University of Leipzig. As a woman, she was not allowed to matriculate at the university, but was granted permission to attend Ratzel”s lectures as the only female student among 500 students. She subsequently collaborated with Ratzel and published several academic writings in American and European journals, but never received an academic degree in Leipzig.

From 1906 to 1920, Semple taught at the University of Chicago. Clark University offered her her first tenured academic position in 1922. She was the first female faculty member at the university to teach geography there in the 1920s, but always received a significantly lower salary than her male colleagues. In 1912 and 1922, she also lectured at the University of Oxford in Great Britain.

Her first book, American History and its Geographic Conditions (1903) and her second book, Influences of Geographic Environment (1911) were widely used as textbooks for students of geography and history in the early 20th century.

Semple was a founding member of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 1904 and was the first woman elected president of the organization in 1921, making her one of only six women to hold that office in AAG history.

Environmental determinism and human geography

Semple, along with Ellsworth Huntington and Griffith Taylor, was a key figure in the theory of environmental determinism. According to this theory, human culture is shaped primarily by conditions of the physical environment rather than by social conditions. Influenced by the works of Charles Darwin and inspired by her mentor Friedrich Ratzel, Semple further developed this theory. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, environmental determinism was the leading school of thought in geography, although today it is heavily criticized and plays only a minor role in the social sciences. Semple”s influence is still visible in the works of many representatives of modern geography, including Jared Diamond.

In a series of books and scholarly articles, Semple made aspects of the work of German geographer Friedrich Ratzel known in the English-speaking world.

In her book Influences of Geographic Environment: On the Basis of Ratzel”s System of Anthropo-Geography (1911), she described people and the landscapes in which they live and classified the major types of environment. She identified four critical types of physical environment impacts on people: 1. direct physical impacts (climate, elevation), 2. psychological impacts (culture, art, religion), 3. economic and social impacts (resources and livelihood), 4. human mobility impacts (natural barriers and routes such as mountains and rivers).

Semple”s work also reflected debates and conflicts within geography and the social sciences about determinism and race. In some works, she attacked the idea, prevalent in her time, that social and cultural differences were determined by race and argued that the environment was a more important factor in cultural development. Critics often charged that Semple”s theories of environmental determinism were highly simplistic and that they often merely substituted “nature” for the theme of race as a determinant. More recently, however, there has been renewed interest in her work because she pioneered ways to address problems that are now central to political ecology.

Semple believed that mankind had its origins in the tropics, but could only fully develop in temperate climates. “Where man has remained in the tropics, with few exceptions, he has suffered arrested development. His nursery has kept him a child.” (“Where man has remained in the tropics, with few exceptions, he has suffered arrested development. His nursery has kept him a child.”)

In academic circles, Semple is best known for her contribution to environmental determinism. However, her later works, in which she discusses the role of environmental influences in a way that departs from the theory of environmental determinism, reflect the increasing shift away from environmental determinism in science after the First World War.

Field research

For her research, Semple also conducted fieldwork in Kentucky and the Mediterranean, an unusual and innovative research method in geography at the time. From 1911 to 1912, she undertook an eight-month journey, visiting Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Java, Ceylon, India, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey, in addition to Europe and the United States. The focus of the trip was the three-month stay in Japan, during which she assisted Ōyama Sutematsu, her classmate from Vassar College. During her fieldwork, she took notes on the relationship between people and the environment and on cultural landscape features, and made detailed observations about residential buildings, structures, the local economy, and everyday life.

Semple taught geography until her death in 1932. She died in West Palm Beach, Florida, and was buried in Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville.

In 1914, the American Geographical Society awarded Semple the Cullum Geographic Medal in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the science of human geography. She served as president of the Association of American Geographers (now the American Association of Geographers) from 1921 to 1922 and was awarded the Helen Culver Gold Medal by the Geographic Society of Chicago in recognition of her leadership in American geography. In her hometown of Louisville, an elementary school is named Semple Elementary School in her honor.

Sources

  1. Ellen Churchill Semple
  2. Ellen Churchill Semple
  3. a b c d Nina Brown: Ellen Churchill Semple: The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains, 1901. Hrsg.: CSISS Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. (englisch, 23211530/http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/24).
  4. Edward James: Notable American Women: Volume III. The Bellnap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1971, S. 260.
  5. Cresswell, Tim (2013) Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  6. O. G. Libby: Review: Influences of Geographic Environment, on the Basis of Ratzel”s Systems of Anthropo-Geography. In: American Historical Association (Hrsg.): The American Historical Review. Band 17, Nr. 2, S. 355–357, doi:10.2307/1833003, JSTOR:1833003 (englisch).
  7. a b Ellen E. Adams: Colonial Geographies, Imperial Romances: Travels in Japan with Ellen Churchill Semple and Fannie Caldwell Macaulay. In: The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 13, Nr. 2, 2014, ISSN 1537-7814, S. 145–165. doi:10.1017/S153778141400005X.
  8. ^ James, Edward (1971). Notable American Women: Volume III. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Bellnap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 260.
  9. ^ a b c d Brown, Nina. Ellen Churchill Semple: The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains, 1901. Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. Accessed 2015-3-12. [1] Archived 2015-09-23 at the Wayback Machine
  10. James, Edward (1971). Notable American Women: Volume III. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Bellnap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 260.
  11. a b c d e Brown, Nina. Ellen Churchill Semple: The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains, 1901. Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. Accessed 2015-3-12.
  12. a b c d Edwards, Everett Eugene (July 1933). “Ellen Churchill Semple”. Agricultural History. 7 (3): 150–152. JSTOR 3739708
  13. Cresswell, Tim (2013) Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  14. a b Adams, Ellen E. (2014/04). «Colonial Geographies, Imperial Romances: Travels in Japan with Ellen Churchill Semple and Fannie Caldwell Macaulay». The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (en inglés) 13 (2): 145-165. ISSN 1537-7814. doi:10.1017/S153778141400005X. Consultado el 14 de mayo de 2020.
  15. a b c et d (en) Brown, Nina, Ellen Churchill Semple: The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains, 1901. Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. [1].
  16. Nicolas Ginsburger, « La féminisation professionnelle d’une discipline sous tension », Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, no 35,‎ 15 décembre 2019, p. 25–58 (ISSN 1622-468X, DOI 10.4000/rhsh.3975, lire en ligne, consulté le 4 décembre 2021)
  17. (en) Cresswell, Tim (2013) Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA.