Geddes, Patrick

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Geddes, Patrick



Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), British biologist, sociologist, and town planner, was born in Ballater, Scotland, and died in Montpellier, France. His childhood was spent in Perth. Because he was small and frail, Geddes did not go to school until he was eight; but through working in the cottage garden with his father, a retired professional soldier, he acquired his lifelong interest in plants and gardens. When he was 15, his father took him on a walking trip of more than two hundred miles through a series of river valleys. This tour suggested to young Geddes the practice he was to introduce later into both British education and town planning—the city and regional survey. After his graduation when he was barely 16 from the Perth Academy, where he had been a prize-winning student, his father gave him a free year to spend both reading and working with a local craftsman. During that year, Geddes’ interests turned toward the biological sciences; and the reading of Thomas Huxley’s Lay Sermons led to his beginning his career in the study of biology, at first under Huxley himself.

While pursuing zoological studies in Paris, Geddes came under the influence of Edmond Demolins of the science sociale group, who introduced him to Frédéric Le Play’s detailed occupational and regional studies of famille, travail, lieu. These categories, like organism, function, and environment in biology, constituted the basic triad that Geddes used in his later analyses of society; famille was replaced by “folk” or “people.”

In 1879, on a British Association for the Advancement of Science grant, Geddes went to Mexico. There his health broke down and he suffered a two-month period of blindness. This misfortune had a decisive effect on his intellectual life. To overcome his handicap, he invented a system of graphic notations by means of paper folded into nine squares. It was the first of his “thinking machines” and one of the earliest applications of graphic methods to nonmathematical problems. By the elaboration of these graphs, using as many as 36 squares, Geddes sought to demonstrate the constant interplay of ideas, forces, functions, groups, and institutions, all of which are usually treated by the specialized sciences as if they were independent and isolated. His basic graph, in which the central figure of the triad represents an activity or a function, and the surrounding squares modes of interaction, was an early systematization of field theory; and the holistic view it presented was much later developed independently by J. L. Moreno.

No longer able to use the microscope, Geddes nevertheless produced a steady stream of scientific papers and encyclopedia articles during the 1880s; he even opened up a new area in biology with his lifelong collaborator, J. Arthur Thomson, in their pioneer volume on the evolution of sex (1889) [seeEcology, article onhuman ecology]. In that year a special chair in botany was established for him at University College, Dundee, a post he occupied for three months annually until 1919. Meanwhile, his widening social, aesthetic, and historical explorations turned him toward social problems. As early as 1882, Geddes introduced the new concept of energetics, later developed by Wilhelm Ostwald, into the analysis of census statistics; in 1884 he applied functional biological criteria to the more conventional economic analyses of the division of labor.

After his marriage in 1886, Geddes settled in Edinburgh and engaged in a series of activities that laid the basis for his later career as a town planner and as the leading British exponent of regionalism. Among these were the founding of four badly needed university residence halls, run by students; the rehabilitation of sundry sordid tenements of the Old Town; and the transformation by voluntary labor of neglected patches of land into gardens and play spaces. In the 1890s he converted the Outlook Tower atop Castle Hill into what Charles Zueblin described as “the world’s first sociological laboratory”—actually a sociological museum, library, and meeting place. In 1891 he instituted a series of 14 collegiate summer meetings at the tower, with scholars like P’etr Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus as lecturers. In the 1890s Geddes gathered round him a group of artists and writers who formed the center of the short-lived Celtic renascence. Among them was the writer of Celtic romances, William Sharp, who called himself Fiona Macleod.

In 1903 Geddes embarked more formally on his career as sociologist and planner by assisting his colleague Victor Branford in the founding of the Sociological Society in London and by entering a planning competition held by the Carnegie Trust for the civic improvement of Dunfermline. Although his ambitious designs for Dunfermline were rejected, Geddes’ comprehensive report, City Development (1904), remains a landmark in city planning, for it demonstrates his method of “conservative surgery,” that is, preserving the complex historic tissue of a city while boldly introducing desirable innovations (see Geddes 1947).

Geddes’ own survey of Edinburgh, modest in scale, established the civic survey as an essential first step in town planning, while in a series of city exhibitions and sociological lectures, including numerous extension courses at the University of London, he opened up the neglected study of the city itself. This rediscovery of the city was his out standing contribution to sociology. Geddes’ leader ship helped pave the way for the British Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 and brought him an invitation to put his ideas to work in India. There, between 1914 and 1924, he surveyed and planned some fifty cities; and from 1919 to 1924 he served as professor of civics and sociology at the University of Bombay. His unpublished plans for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and for Tel Aviv and his remarkable two-volume report on Indore (1918) were also completed between 1914 and 1925. The report on Indore contains his exhaustive critical appraisal of the failings and potentialities of the modern university.

Although Geddes considered his thought a union of the traditions of Comte and Le Play, in his effort at synthesis he was a continuator of Herbert Spencer and more remotely of Aristotle. He treated sociology as a unifying discipline whose main components are geography, economics, and anthro pology, all taken in their widest human context. His aim as a systematic thinker was to break down the sterile isolation and impoverished abstraction of specialized knowledge, so as to be able to move and act freely over the entire range of human experience, even that which lay beyond rigorously scientific description. He was as fertile as Bentham in coining neologisms, and many of his new terms, such as “geotechnics,” “biotechnics,” and “conur bation,” have already entered the dictionary, while his characterization of specialism—“knowing more and more about less and less”—has become classic.

The best presentation of Geddes’ method, along with his general sociological conspectus, appears in Volume 2 of Life (1931, chapters 11-13). These pages reveal the detailed wealth of his scholarship and first-hand experience, which offsets the some times arbitrary explications of his graphs. Since he was essentially an oral teacher, like G. H. Mead, his direct influence is best shown in the work of his students and colleagues, such as P. Abercrombie (town planning), V. Branford (sociology), H. J. Fleure (geography), and J. Arthur Thomson (biology). But more important, the influence of his ideas is being felt throughout the world, even in cases where their origin has been forgotten.

Lewis Mumford

[For the historical context of Geddes’ work, seeCity, article onForms and Functions; and the biog raphies ofComte; Le Play; Spencer. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeHousing, article onSocial Aspects; Region; and the biography ofFleure.]


1882 On the Classification of Statistics and Its Results. Royal Society of Edinburgh, Proceedings 11:295–322.

1884 An Analysis of the Principles of Economics. Royal Society of Edinburgh, Proceedings 12:943–980.

(1889) 1914 Geddes, Patrick; and thomson, john A.The Evolution of Sex. 2d ed., rev. London: Walter Scott.

1904 City Development; A Study of Parks, Gardens, and Culture-institutes: A Report to the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust. Edinburgh: Geddes.

1905-1906 Civics, as Applied Sociology. Sociological Society, London, Sociological Papers 1:103-118; 2:57–119.

1907 A Suggested Plan for a Civic Museum (or Civic Exhibition) and Its Associated Studies. Sociological So ciety, London, Sociological Papers 3:197–240.

(1912) 1923 Dramatisation of History: A Pageant of Education From Primitive to Celtic Times. 5th ed. Bombay: Modern Publishing Co. → First published as The Masque of Ancient Learning and Its Many Meanings.

(1915) 1950 Cities in Evolution. New ed., rev. Oxford Univ. Press.

(1917) 1919 Branford, Victor V.; and Geddes, PatrickThe Coming Polity. New & enl. ed. London: Williams.

1917 Geddes, Patrick; and Slater, Gilbert. Ideas at War. London: Williams &Norgate.

1918 Town Planning Towards City Development: A Report to the Durbar of Indore. 2 vols. Indore (India): Holkar State Press.

1931 Thomson, J. Arthur; and Geddes, PatrickLife: Outlines of General Biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.

1947 Patrick Geddes in India. Edited by Jacqueline Tyr-whitt, with an introduction by Lewis Mumford. Lon don: Humphries. → Published posthumously.


Boardman, Philip L. 1936 Esquisse de Voeuvre éducatrice de Patrick Geddes, suivie de trois listes bibliographiques. Montpellier (France): Imprimerie de laCharite. Contains a bibliography of Geddes’ works.

Boardman, Philip L. 1944 Patrick Geddes: Maker of the Future. With an introduction by Lewis Mumford. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Defries, Amelia 1927 The Interpreter Geddes: The/Man and His Gospel. London: Routledge.

Mairet, Philip 1957 Pioneer of Sociology: The Life and Letters of Patrick Geddes. London: Lund Humphries.

Sociological Review. → Published since 1908. Most of Patrick Geddes’ papers were published in this journal between 1908 and 1931.