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Ellen Churchill Semple will long be remembered for her contributions to American geography despite her association with the long-disregarded topic of environmental determinism. Ellen Semple was born in the midst of the Civil War in Louisville, Kentucky on January 8, 1863. Her father was a fairly affluent owner of a hardware store and her mother took care of Ellen and her six (or possibly four) siblings.
Ellen's mother encouraged the children to read and Ellen was especially enamored with books about history and travel. As a young person, she enjoyed horseback riding and tennis. Semple attended public and private schools in Louisville until she was sixteen when she headed off to college in Poughkeepsie, New York. Semple attended Vassar College where she earned her bachelor's degree in history at the age of nineteen. She was the class valedictorian, gave the commencement address, was one of thirty-nine female graduates, and was the youngest graduate in 1882.
Following Vassar, Semple returned to Louisville where she taught at the private school operated by her older sister; she also became active in local Louisville society. Neither teaching nor social engagements interested her enough, she desired much more intellectual stimulation. Fortunately, she had a chance to escape her boredom.
In an 1887 trip to London with her mother, Semple met an American man who had just completed a Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig (Germany). The man, Duren Ward, told Semple about a dynamic professor of geography at Leipzig named Friedrich Ratzel. Ward loaned Semple a copy of Ratzel's book, Anthropogeographie, which she immersed herself in for months and subsequently decided to study under Ratzel at Leipzig.
She returned home to finish work on a master's degree by writing a thesis titled Slavery: A Study in Sociology and by studying sociology, economics, and history. She earned her master's degree in 1891 and rushed to Leipzig to study under Ratzel. She obtained accommodations with a local German family in order to improve her abilities in the German language. In 1891, women were not allowed to be enrolled in German universities although by special permission they could be allowed to attend lectures and seminars. Semple met Ratzel and obtained permission to attend his courses. She had to sit apart from the men in the classroom so in her first class, she sat in the front row alone among 500 men.
She remained at the University of Leipzeg through 1892 and then returned again in 1895 for additional study under Ratzel. Since she could not enroll at the university, she never earned a degree from her studies under Ratzel and therefore, never actually obtained an advanced degree in geography.
Although she Semple was well-known in the geography circles of Germany, she was relatively unknown in American geography. Upon returning to the United States, she began to research, write, and publish articles and began to gain a name for herself in American geography. Her 1897 article in the Journal of School Geography, "The Influence of the Appalachian Barrier upon Colonial History" was her first academic publication. In this article, she showed that anthropological research could indeed be studied in the field.
Becoming an American Geographer
What established Semple as a true geographer was her outstanding field work and research into the people of the Kentucky highlands. For over a year, Semple explored the mountains of her home state and discovered niche communities that had not changed much since they were first settled. The English spoken in some of these communities still carried a British accent. This work was published in 1901 in the article "The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains, a Study in Antropogeography" in the Geographical Journal.
Semple's writing style was a literary one and she was a fascinating lecturer, which encouraged interest in her work. In 1933, Semple disciple Charles C. Colby wrote about the impact of Semple's Kentucky article, "Probably this brief article has fired more American students to interest in geography than any other article ever written."
There was a strong interest in Ratzel's ideas in America so Ratzel encouraged Semple to make his ideas known to the English-speaking world. He asked that she translate his publications but Semple did not agree with Ratzel's idea of the organic state so she decided to publish her own book based on his ideas. American History and Its Geographic Conditions was published in 1903. It gained wide acclaim and was still required reading in many geography departments across the United States in the 1930s.
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Her Career Takes Off
The publication of her first book launched Semple's career. In 1904, she became one of the forty-eight charter members of the Association of American Geographers, under the presidency of William Morris Davis. That same year she was appointed Associate Editor of the Journal of Geography, a position she retained until 1910.
In 1906, she was recruited by the country's first Department of Geography, at the University of Chicago. (The Department of Geography at the University of Chicago was established in 1903.) She remained affiliated with the University of Chicago until 1924 and taught there in alternating years.
Semple's second major book was published in 1911. Influences of Geographic Environment further expounded on Semple's environmental deterministic viewpoint. She felt that climate and geographic location was the major cause of a person's actions. In the book, she cataloged countless examples to prove her point. For example, she reported that those who live in mountain passes are usually robbers. She provided case studies to prove her point but she didn't include or discuss counter examples that could prove her theory wrong.
Semple was an academic of her era and while her ideas can be considered racist or exceedingly simple today, she opened up new arenas of thought within the discipline of geography. Later geographic thought rejected the simple cause and effect of Semple's day.
That same year, Semple and a few friends took a trip to Asia and visited Japan (for three months), China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. The trip provided a tremendous amount of fodder for additional articles and presentations over the next few years. In 1915, Semple developed her passion for the geography of the Mediterranean region and spent much of her time researching and writing about this portion of the world for the remainder of her life.
In 1912, she taught geography at Oxford University and was a lecturer at Wellesley College, the University of Colorado, Western Kentucky University, and UCLA over the course of the next two decades. During World War I, Semple responded to the war effort as did most geographers by giving lectures to officers about the geography of the Italian front. After the war, she continued her teaching.
In 1921, Semple was elected President of the Association of American Geographers and accepted a position as a Professor of Anthropogeography at Clark University, a position she held until her death. At Clark, she taught seminars to graduate students in the fall semester and spent the spring semester researching and writing. Throughout her academic career, she averaged one important paper or book each year.
Later in Life
The University of Kentucky honored Semple in 1923 with an honorary doctorate degree in law and established the Ellen Churchill Semple Room to house her private library. Stricken with a heart attack in 1929, Semple began to succumb to ill health. During this time she was working on her third important book - about the geography of the Mediterranean. Following a lengthy hospital stay, she was able to move to a home adjacent to Clark University and with the help of a student, she published Geography of the Mediterranean Region in 1931.
She moved from Worcester, Massachusetts (the location of Clark University) to the warmer climate of Ashevlle, North Carolina in late 1931 in an attempt to restore her health. Doctors there recommend an even milder climate and lower elevation so a month later she moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. She died in West Palm Beach on May 8, 1932 and was buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
A few months after her death, the Ellen C. Semple School was dedicated in Louisville, Kentucky. Semple School is still in existence today. The University of Kentucky Geography Department hosts an Ellen Churchill Semple Day every spring to honor the discipline of geography and its accomplishments.
Despite Carl Sauer's assertion that Semple was "a mere American mouthpiece for her German master," Ellen Semple was a prolific geographer who served the discipline well and succeeded despite tremendous obstacles for her gender in the halls of academia. She definitely deserves to be recognized for her contribution to the advancement of geography.