George Perkins Marsh

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George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) is best remembered for his work Man and Nature (1864), which was later revised as The Earth as Modified by Human Action (1874). Published one hundred years before the ecology movement of the 1960s, Marsh's theories recognized human impact on the environment and have since influenced ecologists throughout the world. A skilled diplomat, Marsh is also acknowledged for his successful posts as ambassador to both Turkey and Italy.

Marsh was born in Woodstock, Vermont on March 15, 1801. He grew up in rural Vermont and maintained an affinity with the outdoors throughout his life. Marsh's ancestors on both his paternal and maternal side included members of the intellectual elite of New England. His father, Charles Marsh, a prominent local lawyer and district attorney for Vermont, established his estate in an idyllic setting along the Quechee River in the foothills of the Green Mountains. As David Lowenthal speculated in his biography George Perkins Marsh: Versatile Vermonter, this setting helped shape Marsh's ideals as "From the summit of Mt. Tom young George Marsh could survey the entire cosmos of his early years. The main range of the Green Mountains, far to the west, was dark with spruce and hemlock and white pine. But thirty years of clearing and planting had converted the lower, gentler hills surrounding Woodstock into a variegated pattern of field and pasture, while pioneer profligacy and the need for fuel had already destroyed much of the forest on the steeper slopes."

Much of Marsh's childhood, however, was spent indoors. He showed an early aptitude toward study, beginning to read Reese's Encyclopaedia at the age of five. Influenced by his strict Calvinist father, Marsh was infused with an almost compulsive need to acquire facts. According to Lowenthal, "His family considered him a paragon because he knew almost everything from ethics to needlework." In fact his devotion to reading reportedly led to poor eyesight, and at age seven or eight, he was restricted from reading for four years. During this time, young Marsh ventured out into the woods and began to observe nature firsthand. He commented that "the bubbling brook, the trees, the flowers, the wild animals were to me persons, not things." Marsh took not only an aesthetic interest in nature, but, owing to his father's influence, a scientific interest as well.

Scholarly Endeavors

Marsh gained much of his early education at home as his older brother taught him Latin and Greek, his father geography and morals, and he garnered a great deal of information from his own reading of the encyclopedia. However, because his father wanted young George to receive a more traditional and religious education, Marsh was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1816. There amidst a "prison-like existence" Marsh failed to thrive intellectually. Within a few months, he had left Andover. At age fifteen, he attended Dartmouth College, although he had little fondness for the uninspired curriculum and took it upon himself to study Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. Following his graduation at age nineteen, Marsh taught Greek and Latin at Norwich Academy. He detested teaching and quit after just one year.

Gained Recognition in Politics and Diplomacy

During the next four years, Marsh returned to Woodstock, where he recovered from a relapse of the eyesight condition he had suffered from as a child. He also began to study law and, in 1825, was admitted to the bar. He then moved to Burlington, Vermont, where he lived for 35 years, pursuing his legal career as well as numerous unsuccessful business ventures. Never truly happy as a lawyer, Marsh ran for Congress as a Whig and was elected in 1843. He served until 1849. During his tenure in office, Marsh opposed the admission of Texas as a slave state and argued against United States involvement in the Mexican War. Perhaps Marsh's most lasting legacy in Congress, however, was his involvement in organizing the Smithsonian Institute. In Lowenthal's biography of Marsh, he contended, "The Smithsonian story illustrates the kind of role that Marsh was to play again and again. He was not a great statesman. Nor was he a scientist of the first rank; he made no original discoveries. But in the borderlands linking science and the public weal Marsh made lasting contributions. He applied science to life, not with the disinterested precision of an engineer, but with the aims and methods of a humanist. The Smithsonian—its aims, its activities, its personnel—was in large measure the result of Marsh's efforts as an impresario of ideas."

Marsh was appointed United States minister to Turkey in 1849 by President Zachary Taylor. Marsh's proficiency in 20 languages helped distinguish him as a highly effective diplomat. In addition to his duties as minister, Marsh traveled extensively and furthered his interest in the study of geography. He gathered meteorological data that he compiled in writing pieces for the American Journal of Science, as well as collecting plant and animal specimens that he sent to the Smithsonian. Following an administration change, Marsh was recalled to the United States in 1854 and served as Vermont railroad commissioner from 1857 until 1859. Also upon his return, Marsh began to garner recognition as an eminent philologist, lecturing at Columbia University and the Lowell Institute. His A Compendious Grammar of the Old-Northern or Icelandic Language (1838), Lectures on the English Language (1860), and The Origin and History of the English Language (1862), while ponderous and outdated are nevertheless considered important works in the field of philology.

In 1861, Marsh was appointed by President Lincoln to be the first United States minister to the new kingdom of Italy. He successfully held this post for the last 21 years of his life. So well trusted was Marsh that the Italian government allowed him to arbitrate a difficult boundary dispute between Switzerland and Italy. Having served longer than any American diplomat except Benjamin Franklin, Marsh became known as the "Patriarch of American Diplomacy." Marsh died in Vallombrosa, Italy, on July 23, 1882 and was buried in Rome. His various accomplishments as a scholar and diplomat earned him accolades, prompting this description in American Authors: 1600-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature: "[He was] one of the most typical and most significant examples of the nineteenth century New England mind in action."

Man and Nature Inspires Conservation Movement

Although Marsh began writing Man and Nature when he was in his sixties, several critics note that what would become his masterwork was the culmination of a lifetime of his observations of the natural world. In particular, his travels throughout the Mediterranean and North Africa confirmed what he believed to be true based upon his observations in New England: when humans cultivate the land and exploit natural resources without regard to management and replenishment, the land is altered and ultimately destroyed. Ever the scholar, Marsh took an historical overview to delineate his thesis. Joseph Gustaitis wrote in American History Illustrated, "[It] is a staggering compilation. Beginning with the fall of Rome, Man and Nature moves on to a complex evaluation of the relationships between animals and plants. It continues with a 200-page chapter on forestry, analyzes man's influence on water, examines the origin and structure of sand dunes, and concludes with grand speculations about canals, deserts, and earthquakes." Summarizing Marsh's ideas, Paul Brooks wrote in his Speaking for Nature: How Literary Naturalists from Henry Thoreau to Rachael Carson Have Shaped America, "[It] was the first book to consider man as a geological force, a force upsetting what we know today as the 'balance of nature.' Marsh's concern was less with nature's impact on man than with man's impact on nature, and he took not only America, but the whole civilized world as his province." Marsh proposed that humans were superior beings, and that they held control over the environment. According to Marsh, "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords." However, humankind becomes both a destructive and constructive force wherein there is "the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvements of waste and exhausted regions." Larry Anderson maintained in Wilderness that "Marsh's call for active, constructive rehabilitation of damaged landscapes anticipated today's nascent 'restoration ecology' movement."

Man and Nature proved to be initially popular, going through three publications during Marsh's lifetime. While it faded from interest after the turn of the century, it began to regain popularity in the 1930s and continues to influence society. Although Marsh himself was apt to dismiss Man and Nature as a heavy and cheerless tome, the effect of his work cannot be underestimated. Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, considered Man and Nature "epoch-making," and, indeed, it was Marsh's work that many historians contend directly led to the formation of the national forest system in 1891. Often considered a prophet for his groundbreaking work, the problems he illuminated over a century ago still cause concern. As Anderson stated in his Wilderness essay, "[The] dire prospect of global warming, and other recent environmental calamities, from floods in Bangladesh to the enormous oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound—such phenomena dramatize the paradox Marsh well understood before there was a genuine conservation movement or a sophisticated scientific understanding of globe-encircling environmental processes: The technological and economic forces that provide valuable material benefits can also produce the very conditions that undermine the planet's ability to sustain life." While Marsh moved on to pursue other projects after having written Man and Nature, the legacy of his work has been a constant source of inspiration in developing conservation and ecology studies. As biographer Lowenthal stated, "Anyone with a hoe or an ax knows what he is doing, but before Marsh no one had seen the total effects of all axes and hoes. Once Marsh made this general observation, the conclusion was, for him, inescapable. Man depends upon soil, water, plants, and animals. But in securing his livelihood he may unwittingly destroy the fabric of nature that supports him. Therefore, said Marsh, men must learn to understand their environment and how they affect it. And they must take action, individual and collective, to restore and maintain a more viable milieu."


American Authors 1600-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, H.W. Wilson Company, 1938.

Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1949, United States Government Printing Office, 1950.

Brooks, Paul, Speaking for Nature: How Literary Naturalists from Henry Thoreau to Rachel Carson Have Shaped America, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.

Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Dumas Malone, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 1, Gale, 1978.

Encyclopedia of American Biography, edited by John A. Garraty, Harper and Row Publishers, 1974.

Environmental Encyclopedia, First Edition, Gale, 1994.

Lowenthal, David, George Perkins Marsh: Versatile Vermonter, Columbia University Press, 1958.

National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume II, University Microfilms, 1967.

Oxford Companion to American History, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Oxford Companion to American Literature, edited by James D. Hart, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Webster's American Biographies, edited by Charles Van Doren, G. and C. Merriam Company, 1975.


American History Illustrated, December 1984, p. 42-3.

Horizon, Summer 1968, pp. 17-23.

National Wildlife, August-September 1980, pp. 28-9.

Wilderness, Summer 1990, pp. 64-68.


"George Perkins Marsh," A and E Network Biography, (December 27, 2000). □

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Marsh, George Perkins



George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), an American geographer, is known today primarily as the founding father of the conservation movement. His contemporaries regarded him as the most comprehensive American scholar of the time. His enduring contributions to knowledge stemmed from an unusual combination of historical and ecological insights. As a social historian, Marsh broke new ground in treating the story of mankind as the history of the use and misuse of resources. As an ecologist, he saw the history of nature com-mingled with that of man and traced the motives, the techniques, and the consequences of man’s impact on the earth. Although he was not a trained naturalist, Marsh manifested an extraordinary awareness of the fragile interdependence of all aspects of nature, physical and biological, and of their multiform significance for mankind.

The scion of a patrician family in frontier Vermont, Marsh graduated from Dartmouth College and practiced law in Burlington, meanwhile engaging in business—farming, lumbering, woolen manufacturing, railroad development, marble quarrying—and in politics. He served in the state legislature and for six years in Congress. As a reward for services to the Whig and Republican parties, he was appointed United States minister to Turkey from 1849 to 1853 and to Italy from 1861 to 1882, the latter an unequaled tenure of office. This diplomatic career gave him an opportunity to travel widely and made possible the leisure essential for his scholarly work.

Marsh’s first contributions were in linguistics. Attracted by new developments in the study of Teutonic languages, folklore, and cultural origins, he edited the first Icelandic grammar in English, delved into the history and literature of Old Norse and related tongues, and became the American promoter for C. C. Rafn’s monumental Antiquitates americanae, a collection of Icelandic sagas bearing on the Iceland–Greenland–Vinland settlements. Marsh’s historical studies of the English language were the standard texts during the 1860s, and he was in continual demand as editor, adviser, and critic of dictionaries, including the New English Dictionary. Familiarity with an extraordinary range of source materials in twenty languages made Marsh a first-rate, if not profoundly original, etymologist.

His work as a scientific middleman was of more lasting significance. In the House of Representatives, Marsh helped to create, to staff, and to shape the Smithsonian Institution, guiding its early ventures in archeology and in natural science and guarding its research endowment against congressional incursions. He himself added animal specimens from Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine to the Smithsonian collections. On his return from Turkey he strongly urged the introduction of camels as beasts of burden in the American West—an enterprise initially successful but aborted by the Civil War.

A utilitarian zeal directed and inspired Marsh’s best work. As early as the 1840s he publicly advocated measures of physical improvement and conservation: the establishment of nurseries for forestry research and the regulation of logging to prevent excessive and flashy runoff and consequent flooding and desiccation. Not until he returned to Italy in 1861, however, did Marsh bring together the materials he had long been collecting into a systematic analysis of man’s manipulation of the natural environment. Published in 1864, Man and Nature showed how man differs from nature, how nature operates within itself, and what happens to woods and waters, mountains and deserts, when men clear, farm, dam, and build.

In surveying man’s impact, conscious and unconscious, Marsh did not overlook the improvements but stressed the accompanying and resulting damage. Technology had enabled man to derange natural balances and might ultimately, Marsh feared, reduce the surface of the earth “to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species” ([1864] 1965, p. 44). Man and Nature was the first book to controvert the American myth of an inexhaustible earth. Its immediate impact was more moral than practical, but by 1907, when it had gone through three editions, the basic principles of Man and Nature were embodied in the national conservation program.

In geography, Marsh is also important as an early and effective critic of environmental determinism, then popularized in the works of Arnold Guyot. How could man be viewed as the product of environment, when man himself had the power to alter that environment—and had in fact done so over most of the earth’s surface? The mistakes man had made through ignorance or greed could, Marsh thought, in most cases be rectified by applying scientific principles of land management, by avoiding waste, and by public control of resources.

David Lowenthal

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Marsh’s ideas, seeConservation.]


1856 The Camel: His Organization, Habits, and Uses, Considered With Reference to His Introduction Into the United States. Boston: Gould & Lincoln.

(1860 a) 1885 Lectures on the English Language. Rev. ed. New York: Scribner.

1860 b The Study of Nature. Christian Examiner 68: 33-62. → An unsigned article.

(1862) 1898 The Origin and History of the English Language, and of the Early Literature It Embodies. Rev. ed. New York: Scribner.

(1864) 1965 Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Edited by David Lowenthal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → See the introduction to the 1965 edition by David Lowenthal. Revised editions were published between 1874 and 1907 as The Earth as Modified by Human Action.


Koopman, Harry L. 1892 Bibliography of George Perkins Marsh. Burlington, Vt.: Free Press Association.

Lowenthal, David 1958 George Perkins Marsh: Versatile Vermonter. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Marsh, Caroline C. 1888 Life and Letters of George Perkins Marsh. Vol. 1. New York: Scribner.


George Perkins Marsh