"Everywhere’s been where it is ever since it was first put there. It’s called geography.”  – Terry Pratchett

Why is someone said to be famous? What makes him or her so?

Sociological research avers that someone becomes famous because they possess a special talent such as singing, acting or dancing, their looks or for their contribution in a particular field which will be of benefit to humankind.

Geography scholars have become well-known because of their geography research in respect of countries, peoples and phenomena which are encountered on Earth.

Below we reflect on the lives and work of five geographers who have answered geography questions about the world we inhabit, as well as beyond its terrestrial limits. Without further ado, let’s dive right in and examine the geography research of some the greats: Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Ritter, Ellen Churchill Semple, Al Idrisi, and Claudius Ptolemy.

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Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt, born in Berlin in what was then known as Prussia in 1769, became known as a geographer, polymath, explorer and naturalist.

His mother had designs on Alexander following a career in politics and, so, he was enrolled to study finance at the University of Frankfurt in 1787. Two years later, he enrolled at the University of Gottingen and, while there, met a Dutch medicine student, Steven Jan van Geuns. He travelled to the Rhine with him, where he met Georg Forster, a naturalist who had travelled with James Cook on his second voyage.

And, with that he bade politics a fond farewell!

travelling around the world
Alexander von Humboldt is best known for his voyage to the Americas. (Source: University of Rochester)

On his travels through Europe and England, he encountered individuals who would awaken in him the desire to travel to distant, as yet unknown parts of the world.

“People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once ... But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?” - Alexander von Humboldt

His stay at the University of Gottingen had given him a background in botanical and political geography. This was excellent preparation for a voyage he was to undertake with the French botanist and physician, Aimé Bonpland, between 1799 and 1804.

This ‘voyage of discovery’ saw von Humboldt explore regions now known as Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. This exciting period saw him sail up the Casiquiare (the unique natural canal between the Amazon and Orinoco river systems) to establish its latitude and longitude and climb Mount Chimborazo which is 6 263 metres above sea level.

He spent many years collecting biological and geological data, which, subsequently, saw him publish Kosmos, a five-volume work published between 1845 and 1862.

Because of his work in botanical geography, von Humboldt is regarded by many to be one of the founders of modern geography. He is most famous for developing the idea that geology, biology and weather patterns all influence whether plants are able to survive in particular situations or areas.

Carl Ritter

Carl Ritter, along with Alexander von Humboldt, is regarded as one of geography’s founding fathers. Born in 1779 in Quedlinburg, West Germany he became well-known as a geographer. Seen by many as more historian than geographer, he wrote what some have subsequently referred to as a geographical interpretation of history. Many challenged his ideas after his death, stating that he had made geography ancillary to history. Still, his ideas greatly influenced geographical research in Germany for at least 20 years beyond his death.

How did Ritter become a famous geographer?

learning more about geography
Carl Ritter spent the majority of his life studying geography. (Source: The Famous People)

“The earth is a cosmic individual with a particular organisation ... the exploration of this individuality is the task of geography.” - Carl Ritter

Ritter spent five critical years (1814 – 1819) of his life at Gottingen mainly reviewing geography in his studies. While at Gottingen, he met Lilli Kramer, whom he later married, and went on to write and publish the first two volumes of his signal work, Die Erdkunde.

Die Erdkunde? What is that?

This was Ritter’s great work of research. Written between 1816 and 1859, Die Erdkunde (the Earth Science) was meant to be a survey of the entire world, but was never completed. The first volume, published in 1817, focussed on Africa and brought him an appointment at the University of Berlin. He continued to publish volumes, on a regular basis, between 1832 and 1859, mainly on the continent of Asia. The work, Die Erdkunde, although unfinished, ran into 20 000 pages, consisted of 19 volumes and is still regarded as one of the most comprehensive geographical work ever compiled. The research is comprised of three parts:

  • Continents and their solid form
  • The elements and their fluid form
  • The bodies found in nature’s three realms

The six sections of Die Erdkunde are Africa, west Asia, East Asia, Sinai Peninsula, Arabia and Asia Minor. He viewed geography as an empirical science and stressed that it was important to utilise all the sciences to describe geography’s nature precisely.

Importantly, Ritter is renowned for his view on the Earth as a single entity made up of many individual parts, much as the human body consists of a number of organs all working together for the health and upkeep of the body as an entity.

Ritter’s contribution to geography is regarded as crucial, as he cemented its establishment as an academic discipline.

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Al Idrisi

DID YOU KNOW?

Way before Columbus first set out across the Atlantic, Al Idrisi, a Muslim scholar, had created an atlas depicting Europe, North Africa and Asia!

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The Tabula Rogeriana is one of the most notable medieval maps. (Source: John Zada)

Muslim cartographer and geographer Muhammad Al Idrisi was born in Cueta, now a part of Spain, in the year 1100. After concluding his studies in Cordoba, he travelled widely through Europe, including visits to the Pyrenees, Portugal, modern-day York, Hungary and the French Atlantic coast.

Al Idrisi became famous as both a geographer as well as a cartographer.

During the eighteen years that he spent at the court of Roger II of Sicily, he drew the Tabula Rogeriana in 1154. It is still regarded as one of the most advanced representations of the known medieval world. This geographic map, which depicts Eurasia entirely, only shows the northern part of Africa, but does not include details of South-east Asia and the Horn of Africa.

In 1914, S.P. Scott wrote the following about Idrisi’s contribution to geography and cartography:

“The compilation of al-Idrisi marks an era in the history of science. Not only is its historical information most interesting and valuable, but its descriptions of many parts of the earth are still authoritative. For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration.”

This brilliant scholar was also a mechanical genius as evidenced by the planisphere he created for his patron. This creation, in silver, weighed 204 kilograms and was 2 metres in diameter; accurately depicted the constellations and the zodiac on one side and on the other, bodies of water and land were engraved, with positions of various countries delineated: an amazing feat at that time!

Al-Idrisi inspired many Islamic scholars including Ibn Khaldun, Hafiz-i Abru and Ibn Sa’id al-Magribi, as well as European explorers Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus.

What made Idrisi’s work exceptional was that he always provided incredible detail about geographical features, socio-economic factors, ethnic groups and information about the places he depicted in his maps.

Many world-renowned geographers view his work, The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Places or the Nuzhat al-Mushtaq, as being culturally significant. The compilation contained distinctive geographical information and was conserved in nine manuscripts.

Ellen Churchill Semple

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Ellen Churchill Semple is a famous geographer and feminist icon. (Source: Mujeres con Ciencia)

The above statement was one which stemmed from Temple’s adherence to the theory of environmental determinism, which was influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, came in for significant critique in later years. This controversial theory, whilst contributing to her fame (or notoriety), alleged that man’s activities were fundamentally predetermined by the environment.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Ellen Churchill Semple was a prominent geographer and feminist. She was also famous for having been appointed as the Association of American Geographers’ first female president in 1921.

Initially, she was interested in history and, thus, she graduated from Vassar College with a Bachelor’s degree in History in 1882. Geography, however, became her field of choice after she had come across the works of Friedrich Ratzel on a visit to London. His work led her to enrolling at the University of Leipzig, where she was the only female student in a class of five hundred males.

How impressive!

Arguably, the world’s most celebrated female geographer, Ellen Churchill Semple’s field studies and contributions in geography will remain topics of study by geographers for many years to come.

Ptolemy

the best scholars
Ptolemy was an early pioneer of the field of geography. (Source: Astronimate)

Claudius Ptolemy first saw the light of day in 100 AD in Egypt and is famous for his contributions in the fields of astrology, astronomy, mathematics and geography.

Ptolemy spent a significant part of his life examining crucial aspects of a number of different academic disciplines.

The Geography was a thesis on cartography, an atlas and a gazette which compiled the geographic knowledge of the Roman Empire during the 2nd-century.

Ptolemy spent a great deal of time doing geography research to help him answer many geography questions. Importantly, Ptolemy is credited with devising the idea of latitude and longitude which can be found on any geographic map today. Additionally, at a time when cartography and the recording of geographic locations were not common, Ptolemy laid bare many facts that were shown to be of great use over many decades.

He is truly one of geography’s pioneers who helped fashion the ideas of present-day geographers.

The geographers mentioned in today’s article have all earned a special place in history for a good reason: they had all committed their professional lives to discovering abstract concepts about the earth.

There are several other geographers who deserve to be mentioned and this group includes Paul Vidal de la Blanche, Yi-Fu Tuan, Immanuel Kant and William Morris Davis.

To conclude, the world owes a great deal to these selfless scholars who dedicated their time to make the world a less scary place!

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Trevor

Career teacher turned writer. Passionate about family, running, and the great outdoors.