Isaiah Bowman

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Bowman, Isaiah




Isaiah Bowman (1878–1950), a leading American geographer of his time, was born in Waterloo, Ontario, the third of eight children in a large farm family. Shortly after his birth his parents moved to eastern Michigan, and there Bowman grew up. After a decision “to study geography professionally” he enrolled in Michigan State Normal College at Ypsilanti, studying under Mark Jefferson, who interested him in the human side of geography and encouraged him to go to Harvard to study under William Morris Davis, then a well-known physical geographer. After obtaining his B.A. from Harvard in 1905, Bowman went to Yale, where he taught for the next ten years, receiving his doctorate there in 1909. In 1915 he left Yale and went to New York to become director of the American Geographical Society, a research institution founded in 1851. He remained with the society until 1935, when he was appointed president of The Johns Hopkins University. He retired in 1948.

Bowman made original contributions not only to physical and human geography but also to the type of regional geography in which the two are blended, as in The Andes of Southern Peru (1916) and Desert Trails of Atacama (1924). These studies reflect his participation in three expeditions to South America, in 1907, 1911, and 1913, in the first and third of which he acted as leader.

His classic in physical regional geography of the United States, Forest Physiography (1911), came about as the result of a physiography course he taught in the Yale forestry school. The book was a synthesis of hundreds of papers and monographs; its generalizations followed the Davisian erosional-cycle theory of land formation.

Bowman became chief territorial specialist on President Wilson’s staff at the Paris Peace Conference, after leading a research team called the Inquiry for a year. The Inquiry was organized by Colonel House to provide geographical background materials for the negotiators at Paris; the value of its work has been questioned (Gelfand 1963).

His experience with the Inquiry gave Bowman the inspiration and practical experience for his writings on political geography and for his advisory positions in the State Department during World War II. His book The New World: Problems in Political Geography (1921) treated international relations on a regional basis. It was very successful: a special reprinting was necessary to fulfill the demand for it for armed-services training units studying the background to World War II.

In the early 1930s Bowman presented his “pioneer fringe” thesis that new human settlements should be made only after a scientific evaluation of the proposed environment and of the social and political processes involved. Support and funds for this work came from the National Research Council and from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

Bowman’s Geography in Relation to the Social Sciences (1934) was Volume 5 of the 16-volume Report of the Commission on the Social Studies in the Schools of the American Historical Association and grew out of an earlier conference of the SSRC. Bowman believed that the subject matter of geography had to be decided by individual geographers and asserted that his book contained no quotable definition of geography. He did, however, describe the role of the geographer: “Besides being an explorer, a measurer, a describer, and an interpreter of the features of the earth, the geographer is a synthesizer of the data of his subject according to those realities of experience called regions, and this brings him to fraternize with the historian, the economist, and the sociologist” (1934, pp. 2–3).

Bowman was one of the founders of the Council on Foreign Relations and served on the editorial advisory board of its organ, Foreign Affairs, for over two decades. He served as president of the Association of American Geographers, the International Geographical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1930.

George A. Knadler

[Directly related are the entriesGeography; Region.]


1911 Forest Physiography: Physiography of the United States and Principles of Soils in Relation to Forestry. New York: Wiley.

(1916) 1920 The Andes of Southern Peru: Geographical Reconnaissance Along the Seventy-third Meridian. London: Constable.

(1921) 1928 The New World: Problems in Political Geography. 4th ed. New York: World.

1924 Desert Trails of Atacama. New York: American Geographical Society.

1931 The Pioneer Fringe. New York: American Geographical Society.

1934 Geography in Relation to the Social Sciences. New York: Scribner.

1936 A Design for Scholarship. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

1937 Limits of Land Settlement: A Report on Present Day Possibilities. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.

1939 The Graduate School in American Democracy. U.S. Office of Education, Bulletin No. 10. Washington: Government Printing Office.


Knadler, George A. 1959 Isaiah Bowman: Backgrounds of His Contribution to Thought. Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana Univ.

Wright, John K.; and Carter, George F. 1959 Isaiah Bowman, December 26, 1878–January 6, 1950. Volume 33, pages 39–64 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Wrigley, Gladys M. 1951 Isaiah Bowman. Geographical Review 41:7–65.


Gelfand, Lawrence E. 1963 The Inquiry: American Preparation for Peace, 1917–1919. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Wright, John K. 1952 Geography in the Making: The American Geographical Society, 1851–1951. New York: American Geographical Society.

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Bowman, Isaiah

(b. Waterloo, Ontario, 26 December 1878; d. Baltimore, Maryland, 6 January 1950)


Bowman was the third of eight children of Samuel Cressman Bowman, a farmer of moderate means, whose father had been a schoolteacher and farmer. The family moved to Michigan eight weeks after Isaiah was born. Bowman began teaching in country schools at the age of seventeen, continuing his own education during the summers. He attended Ferris Institute at Big Rapids, Michigan, and later the State Normal School at Ypsilanti, where he was inspired by Mark Jefferson’s approach to general geographical problems through physical geography. With Jefferson’s encouragement, Bowman went to Harvard to study under William Morris Davis and was awarded the B.S. in 1905. He served as an instructor in the geology department at Yale until he earned the Ph.D. from that university in 1909 and became an assistant professor. The study of physiography, which Davis did so much to advance, shaped Bowman’s interests for many years. His work in this field culminated in Forest Physiography (1911). In this large textbook on landforms, Bowman presented the first comprehensive account of the relief, climate, soils, and vegetation of the United States.

Despite the lasting contribution made by Forest Physiography and his extensive work on such problems as water supply and oil-well wastes, Bowman displayed his principal geographical accomplishments in South American and frontier studies. He participated in two Yale expeditions to South America in 1907 and 1911, and in 1913 he returned to South America as leader of an expedition sponsored by the American Geographical Society. The results of these journeys are described in The Andes of Southern Peru (1916), Desert Trails of Atacama (1924), and several papers. After Bowman became director of the American Geographical Society in 1915, he encouraged other studies on South America and initiated the very important project to map Hispanic America on a scale of 1:1,000,000 to meet the standards of the International Millionth Map.

When he took over the leadership of the American Geographical Society, Bowman began to convert an amateur organization into an institution of geographical scholarship. He saw a clear need for intensive yet wide-ranging research for the professionalization of geography. He expanded and remodeled the Society’s Bulletin into the quarterly Geographical Review and initiated publication of monographs. During World War I, the government used the facilities of the Society, and as a member of the American delegation to the peace conference in 1918–1919, Bowman advised on the establishment of postwar boundaries. During the twenty years he directed the Society, he investigated modern frontier areas around the world, demonstrating that the “passing of the American frontier” around 1890, noted by F. J. Turner and others, had been much less rapid and complete than usually presumed. In Bowman’s view, historians had overemphasized the Census Bureau’s decision in 1890 to abandon mapping a frontier line. The line was discarded because isolated bodies of settlement destroyed its meaning, not because the frontier had been settled or because pioneer conditions had disappeared. He carried out fieldwork in Garfield County, Montana, in 1930, and the following year published The Pioneer Fringe, in which he developed his idea that under pioneer conditions man had his most direct confrontation with nature. He pointed out how little scientific study of the pioneer fringe had been undertaken, and suggested that this study in particular could contribute to the development of political and social policies. He recognized that in modern pioneering in an industrial and commercial world, economic law is as vital a factor as any in the natural environment.

In 1931 Bowman was president of the Association of American Geographers; from 1931 to 1934 he served as president of the International Geographical Union. He was chairman of the National Research Council from 1933 to 1935, and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Science Advisory Board in July 1933, it was at Bowman’s suggestion. In 1935 Bowman was appointed president of The Johns Hopkins University. His active participation in public affairs increased after this change. A small but significant part of his publications continued to be devoted to geography. During 1943 he served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In August 1944 he took a prominent part in the World Security Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, and in the spring of 1945 he participated in the implementation of plans creating the United Nations. On his retirement from the presidency of Johns Hopkins University in December 1948, the department of geography was renamed the Isaiah Bowman School of Geography. In 1949 he accepted the position of consultant to the Economic Cooperation Administration.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Bowman’s published and unpublished books and articles accompanies the memorial by George F. Carter (see below). His most important books are Forest Physiography (New York, 1911); The Andes of Southern Peru (New York, 1916); The New World: Problems in Political Geography (Yonkers, N.Y., 1921), with supplements in 1923 and 1924; Desert Trails of Atacama, American Geographical Society spec. pub. no. 5 (New York, 1924); The Pioneer Fringe, ibid., no. 13 (New York, 1931); and Geography in Relation to the Social Sciences (New York, 1934). A sample of his late geographical thought appeared as “Settlement by the Modern Pioneer,” in Griffith Taylor, ed., Geography in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1951), ch. 11. Bowman’s records of his important governmental activities, deposited at The Johns Hopkins University, are to remain sealed until 1975.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bowman are George F. Carter, in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 40 (Dec. 1950), 338–350; and Gladys M. Wrigley, “Isaiah Bowman,” in The Geographical Review, 41 (Jan. 1951), 7–65, the most complete and informative biography.

Bert Hansen

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Isaiah Bowman

The American geographer Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950) is best known for his New World, a remarkable book on political geography. He was also director of the American Geographical Society and president of Johns Hopkins University.

Of farming stock, Isaiah Bowman was born at Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, on Dec. 26, 1878. At the age of 18 he became a teacher in a rural school. His immense ability was noted by the geographer Mark Jefferson, who offered Bowman a post at the Normal College in Ypsilanti, Mich., provided that he went to study in an eastern university. He had the good fortune to study at Harvard under the geographer William M. Davis.

On Bowman's graduation in 1905, Yale University offered him a post as instructor in the department of geology. There he remained for 10 years, teaching geography on modern lines, during which time he made three expeditions to South America (1907, 1911, and 1913). He published two scholarly works about these trips: The Andes of Southern Peru (1916) and Desert Trails of Atacama (1924). His first book, Forest Physiography (1911), shows that he already had a deep knowledge of physical geography in all its aspects.

In 1916 Bowman became director of the American Geographical Society. Under his direction the Geographical Review, replacing the earlier bulletins, became a model of good looks as well as a mine of scholarship. Several major monographs were issued, including his The Pioneer Fringe (1931) and a cognate volume prepared under his direction, Limits of Land Settlement (1937). But the book that delighted generations of geographers is Bowman's The New World: Problems in Political Geography, published in 1921 and reprinted many times. Part of its interest lies in Bowman's work as chief territorial specialist of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1918-1919, though the book was not based solely on the experiences of that time but on the vast knowledge accumulated in previous years, including those when the American Geographical Society had housed the "Inquiry, " a research team of 150 workers.

Bowman resigned as director of the American Geographical Society in 1935 to become president of Johns Hopkins University. He served on numerous commissions, especially those concerned with international questions, and was an adviser on the plans to set up the United Nations. The full range of his activities, especially as an adviser to President Roosevelt and others, will probably not be revealed until his private diaries and files are opened. Bowman died in Baltimore on Jan. 6, 1950.

During his life he broadened the scope of geography, encouraged graduate schools, and made the American Geographical Society a world institution. Bowman belonged not only to the United States but to the international community working for peace.

Further Reading

John Kirtland Wright, Geography in the Making: The American Geographical Society, 1851-1951 (1952), contains an analysis of Bowman's work for the society. See also John K. Wright and George F. Carter, "Isaiah Bowman, " in the National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, vol. 33 (1959), for the main events of his life and comments on his career.

Additional Sources

Martin, Geoffrey J., The life and thought of Isaiah Bowman, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980. □

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Isaiah Bowman (bō´mən), 1878–1950, American geographer, b. Waterloo, Ont., B.S. Harvard, 1905, Ph.D. Yale, 1909. He taught geography at Yale (1905–15) and was director (1915–35) of the American Geographical Society. He led the first Yale South American expedition (1907), served as geographer-geologist on the Yale Peruvian expedition (1911), and led the American Geographical Society Expedition to the Central Andes (1913). He was chief territorial adviser to President Wilson at the Versailles conference and served the Dept. of State as territorial adviser in World War II. Bowman was a member of the executive committee of the National Research Council from 1919 to 1929 and was its chairman from 1933 to 1935. He was president of Johns Hopkins Univ. from 1935 until his retirement in 1948. His work on many commissions and boards includes contributions as an active officer of the Explorers Club, the Association of American Geographers, and the Council of Foreign Relations and as president (1931–34) of the International Geographical Union, and as vice president (1940–45) of the National Academy of Sciences. Bowman's books include Forest Physiography (1911); The Andes of Southern Peru (1916); Desert Trails of the Atacama (1924); The New World (1922); The Pioneer Fringe (1931); and Design for Scholarship (1936).