Semple, Ellen Churchill

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SEMPLE, Ellen Churchill

Born 8 January 1863, Louisville, Kentucky; died 11 May 1932, West Palm Beach, Florida

Daughter of Alexander and Emerine Price Semple

Ellen Churchill Semple was the daughter of a prosperous businessman. In 1882 Semple graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in history. She then taught in a private school in Louisville, and began work on her masters degree in history (Vassar, 1891). During this time, she came into contact with the writings of the renowned geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who coined the word "anthropogeography" to designate the study of the effect of the natural landscape on society. In 1891 Semple went to Leipzig to study with Ratzel. Although women could not matriculate at Leipzig, Semple was permitted to listen to Ratzel's lectures from outside the open classroom door.

In "The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains" (Geographic Journal, 1901), Semple adds to a description of life in the isolated mountains of eastern Kentucky explanations of the presumed influence of the natural environment on the development of a way of life. She documents the scarcity of transportation alternatives, and concludes nature is largely responsible. This article displays a preoccupation with the lives of women, and this interest is less pronounced in Semple's other articles and books, most of which are heavily dependent on archival sources and lack the intimate involvement of the researcher with her subjects.

Semple's first book, American History and Its Geographic Conditions (1903), explains the pattern of settlement and the political power of the U.S. as influenced by topographic features. The book was widely adopted as a textbook, and Semple became a geographer in demand. In 1906 she became a visiting lecturer at the newly established department of geography at the University of Chicago; she lectured there nearly every other year until 1924.

Influences of Geographic Environment (1911) is a tribute to Ratzel. Initially intended as a translation of Ratzel's Anthropo-Geographie, the book was expanded to include documentation of Ratzel's sometimes unsubstantiated claims.

During World War I, Semple lectured on the geography of the Italian front to officers and participated in a special study of the Mediterranean region and Mesopotamia. After the war, she resumed her teaching at the University of Chicago and later at Clark University. Semple was the first geographer solicited for that school. She also gave lectures and taught courses at other universities in both the U.S. and Europe.

Semple's contemporary recognition included election as president of the Association of American Geographers in 1921; medals presented by the American Geographical Society and the Geographic Society of Chicago; and honorary degrees, included one from the University of Kentucky.

Semple's sweeping assertions, in all her works, of the dominant influence of nature, won her the epithet "environmental determinist" and subjected her works to substantial criticism. Semple's eloquence, enthusiasm, and thorough method, however, led to her being highly regarded and influential in the intellectual development of other geographers.

Other Works:

Geography of the Mediterranean Region (1931).


Bronson, J. A. C., Ellen Semple: Contributions to the History of American Geography (dissertation, 1974). Ellen Churchill Semple Papers (Library of Congress archives, 1900-1932).

Other references:

Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1933). Geographical Review (1932). Journal of Geography (1932). Professional Geographer (1974). Science (1932).