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The World’s Most Famous Geographers

By Brentyn, published on 26/03/2019 Blog > Academia > Geography > Learning More About Famous Geographers

“Without geography, you’re nowhere.” -Author Unknown

What makes someone famous? Well, according to the research of sociologists, a person becomes famous for a special talent such as acting or singing, their looks, or for their contributions in distinct fields that will benefit modern society.

Geographers have become renowned for their research about lands, inhabitants, and phenomena of the Earth. 

The following five geographers are well-known for their discoveries in the field of geography and beyond. Therefore, without further delay, let’s take a closer look at the famous finds of Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Ritter, Al Idrisi, Ellen Churchill Semple, and Claudius Ptolemy.

Check out our blog that considers the entire academic discipline of geography.

Alexander von Humboldt

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

“Our imigination is struck only by what is great; but the lover of natural philosophy should reflect equally on all things.” 

Born in 1769 in Berlin in the Kingdom of Prussia, Alexander von Humboldt is known for being a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, and explorer.

During his early beginnings, he was marked for a career in politics by his mother and studied finance for six months in 1787 at the University of Frankfurt, and then in 1789, he enrolled at Gottingen where he met Georg Forster with whom he travelled to Europe.

Goodbye career in politics!

During Humboldt’s first voyages through Europe with Forster, he met individuals that fueled his desires to travel and discover parts of the world that were yet unknown.

Since he was exposed to a background in political and botanical geography while attending university classes at Gottingen, he was extremely well prepared for the voyage of a lifetime that took place from 1799 to 1804 with Aimé Bonpland, a French physician and botanist.

During his 1779-1804 voyage of the Americas, von Humboldt visited territories or regions that are now known as Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico. Some exciting things von Humboldt accomplished while visiting these territories include sailing up the Casiquiare to determine its longitude and latitude and climbing Mount Chimborazo that has a total altitude of 6,263 metres (20,549 feet).

He collected data geographical and biological data for years, and the result was his writings known as Kosmos that were published in five volumes between 1845 and 1662. 

Von Humboldt is considered by many as one of the founders of modern geography for his work on botanical geography and is best known for being the first person to develop the idea that weather patterns, geology, and biology all play an essential part in determining which plants were capable of surviving in which areas.

Carl Ritter

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

“Our earth is a star among the stars; and should not we who are on it prepare ourselves by it for the contemplation of the universe and its Author?”

Carl Ritter was born in Quedlinburg, West Germany in 1779 and is best known as a German geographer. Along with von Humboldt, Ritter is considered by many as one of the founders of modern geography.

How did he become a renowned geographer?

Ritter spent some years at Gottingen from 1814-1819 that proved to be life changing since he occupied the majority of his studies reviewing geography. During his time at Gottingen, he met his wife, Lilli Kramer, and wrote and published the first two volumes of his magnum opus Erdkunde. 

What is the Erdkunde? 

The Erdkunde is Carl Ritter’s 19 part (21 volume) great work that is known today as one of the most extensive works of geography literature written by a single author. Ritter had the intention of writing all-encompassing geography that spanned the entire globe. His research was to consist of three parts:

  1. The solid form of the continents,
  2. The fluid form or the elements,
  3. The bodies of the three realms of nature.

The Erdunke can be divided into the six different sections, Africa, East Asia, West Asia, Arabia, Sinai Peninsula, and Asia Minor.

Ritter is well-known for how he treated and viewed each facet of geography like organs in the human body. He is quoted saying the following:

“Geography was a kind of physiology and comparative anatomy of the earth: rivers, mountains, glaciers, &c., were so many distinct organs, each with its own appropriate functions; and, as his physical frame is the basis of the man, determinative to a large extent of his life, so the structure of each country is a leading element in the historic progress of the nation. The earth is a cosmic individual with a particular organization, an ens sui generis with a progressive development: the exploration of this individuality of the earth is the task of geography.” 

Ritter’s discoveries, works, and theories are timeless and, along with Kant, he was indispensable in establishing geography as an academic discipline.

Al Idrisi

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

FUN FACT ALERT: Did you know that long before Colombus set sail, Muslim scholar Al Idrisi created an atlas showing Europe, Asia, and North Africa?

Muhammad Al Idrisi, who was born in 1100 in Ceuta, Spain, was a Muslim geographer and cartographer. He studied in the city of Córdoba, and his travels took him to many parts of Europe including Portugal, the Pyrenees, the French Atlantic coast, Hungary, and modern-day York.

Al Idrisi is as famous for being a cartographer as he is for being a geographer. 

His most famous work is the Tabula Rogeriana that he drew for Roger II of Sicily in 1154 after a stay of 18 years at his court where he worked on the commentaries and illustrations of the map. Many experts in cartography have viewed the Tabula Rogeriana as one of the most advanced medieval world maps ever drawn.

The Tabula Rogeriana entirely features the Eurasian continent, shows parts of the African continent, and demonstrates slight details of the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia.

Not only made famous for the Tabula Rogeriana, Al Idrisi always provided an incredibly detailed account of all the geographical features, ethnic groups, socioeconomic factors, and other necessary elements of the places he drew.

The works of Al Idrisi inspired Islamic geographers and world-famous explorers such as Vasco Da Gama and Christopher Colombus. 

The Nuzhat al-Mushtaq or The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands, when translated into English, was written by Al Idrisi and featured unique geographical information that has been preserved in nine manuscripts and has been deemed culturally significant by many other well-known cartographers and geographers. 

Ellen Churchill Semple

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

“The important characteristic of plains is their power to facilitate every phase of historical movement; that of mountains is their power to retard, arrest, or deflect it. Man, as part of the mobile envelope of the earth, like air and water feels always the pull of gravity.”

Ellen Churchill Semple was born in 1863 in Louisville, Kentucky, United States. She was a very important American geographer and feminist icon since she is very well known for being named the first female president of the Association of American Geographers in 1921.

Semple’s first interests were in history and in the year 1882 she graduated from Vassar College with a BA in history. However, after a visit to London, she encountered the works of Friedrich Ratzel and geography became her main focus. Her interests in the works of Ratzel led her to the University of Leipzig where she gained permission to attend his classes and became the only woman in a class of five hundred male students.

You go girl! 

Her tireless work in the field of geography led her to many discoveries including the controversial theory of environmental determinism for which she is most famous.

What is environmental determinism?

The theory of environmental determinism is the study of how the physical environment predisposes societies towards particular development.

For example, people in the Carribean enjoy a tropical climate, and environmental determinists would argue that this is the main reason for their laid-back work-ethic and attitude. While on the other hand, those who enjoy a climate of frequent change in Canada, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia are led to more driven and determined work ethic.

Ellen Churchill Semple, arguably the most famous female geographer, contributions and field studies in geography will never be forgotten and will continue to be studied by budding geographers for decades to come.

Ptolemy

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

Claudius Ptolemy was born in c. AD 100 in Egypt and is well-known for significantly contributing to the fields of mathematics, astronomy, geography, and astrology.

Ptolemy spent the majority of his life studying many essential concepts of distinct academic disciplines.

In the field of geography, he is best known for his Geography, a collection of geographic coordinates that were known to the Roman Empire at the time they were recorded, where he mentioned his map projects and the difficulties of mapping.

Many intellectuals credit him for inventing the idea of longitude and latitude. Also, at a time when mapping and recording geographic locations were uncommon, Ptolemy uncovered facts that were proven useful for decades.

He is a true pioneer of geography that shaped the ideas of modern-day geographers.

Honestly, all of the geographers mentioned in today’s article are famous for a good reason; all have dedicated their professional careers to uncovering abstract concepts of the earth that were not yet known at the time of research.

Other famed geographers that deserve consideration include Yi-Fu Tuan, Paul Vidal de la Blanche, William Morris Davis, and Immanuel Kant.

In conclusion, we owe the geographic information we currently possess to pioneers of the past; thank you very much, dear scholars!

Take a glance at the following geography blogs to learn more:

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