Fenneman, Nevin Melancthon

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Fenneman, Nevin Melancthon

(b. Lima, Ohio, 26 December 1865; d. Cincinnati, Ohio, 4 July 1945)


Fenneman was the son of William Henry Fenneman, a Reformed Church clergyman, and Rebecca Oldfather. He attended Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, and then taught high school. He joined the faculty of the Colorado State Normal School in 1892, and in 1893 he married Sarah Alice Glisan, also a faculty member. In 1900 Fenneman undertook graduate work under T. C. Chamberlin, whom he had met with C. R. Van Hise while doing fieldwork in Wisconsin ten years before. Meanwhile, a Harvard summer course in 1895 had brought him under the influence of William Morris Davis. At the University of Chicago he was also a protégé of R. D. Salisbury, receiving the Ph.D. in the near-record time of three semesters.

Returning to Colorado in 1902, Fenneman served as professor of geology at the University of Colorado, where he studied the Boulder oil fields, which were opening at this time. After three semesters at Colorado, Fenneman was called to the geology faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where he taught for four years. Here he began pioneering work in applying regionally the scientific principles of landform study.

In 1907 Fenneman went to the University of Cincinnati, where he started a department of geology and geography. His tenure at Cincinnati may be said to have ended only with his death. Even during his eight years as professor emeritus (he retired as professor of geology and head of the department in 1937, at the age of seventy-three) he continued his studies and publications and taught advanced courses. He spent every summer with geological parties in the field.

From 1900 to 1902 Fenneman was geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey; from 1906 to 1908, with the Illinois State Geological Survey; and from 1914 to 1916, with the Ohio Geological Survey. He served with the U.S. Geological Survey as assistant geologist (1901–1919), associate geologist (1919–1924), and geologist (for a period from 1924 on), publishing a steady flow of papers and reports. These included the most famous work of his career, the map “Physiographic Divisions of the United States” (1916), which was the original for all such maps and was adopted by the U.S. Geological Survey and all other government agencies, as well as serving as the basis of regional work in the United States and university courses on the subject.

Primarily a geographer who approached his subject from the point of view of the college teacher of introductory courses, Fenneman had long been concerned with the search for classificatory principles in what was largely a descriptive field. By 1915 the proposal for a physiographic and topographic classification of the United States based on natural subdivisions led to the formation of a committee consisting of Eliot Blackwelder, Marius R. Campbell, Douglas Johnson, and F. E. Matthes. It was headed by Fenneman, who went on leave to work in Washington for the year. Fenneman published the Physiography of Western United States (New York, 1931) and Physiography of Eastern United States (New York, 1938). The two works were the definitive genetic description and analysis of the physiography of the United States, subdivision by subdivision.

His fields of research also included the action of waves and currents on shores and surveys of the Wisconsin lakes and the oil fields of Colorado, Missouri, and Ohio.

Fenneman’s scientific work brought him many honors, among them the presidency of the American Association of Geographers in 1918 and of the Geological Society of America in 1935. In 1938 he was awarded the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Chicago “for eminent achievements in physiography.”

His colleagues regarded him as “the last of the great trio of American physiographers—Davis, Fenneman, and Johnson—... who... developed a rigid application of logic to the study of land forms and their evolution” (Raymond Walters, “Memorial,” p. 142).


See Walter Bucher, “Memorial to Nevin M. Fenneman,” in Proceedings. Geological Society of America. Annual Report for 1945, pp. 215–228, which has a complete bibliography; and Raymond Walters, “Obituary. Nevin M. Fenneman,” in Science, 102 (10 Aug. 1945), 142–143.

George B. Barbour