Semple, Ellen Churchill (1863–1932)

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Semple, Ellen Churchill (1863–1932)

American geographer and educator. Born on January 8, 1863, in Louisville, Kentucky; died on May 8, 1932, in West Palm Beach, Florida; daughter of Alexander Bonner Semple (a merchant) and Emerine (Price) Semple; Vassar College, B.A., 1882, M.A., 1891; studied at the University of Leipzig, 1891–92, 1895.

Founded Semple Collegiate School for Girls (1893); published Influences of Geographical Environment on the Basis of Ratzel's System of Anthropogeography (1911); received the Cullum Medal of the American Geographical Society (1914); served as president of the Association of American Geographers (1921); received an honorary LL.D. degree from the University of Kentucky (1923), and the gold medal of the Geographic Society of Chicago (1932).

Selected writings:

American History and Its Geographic Conditions (1903); Influences of Geographic Environment on the Basis of Ratzel's System of Anthropogeography (1911); The Geography of the Mediterranean Region: Its Relation to Ancient History (1931).

Born in 1863 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ellen Churchill Semple was the youngest of five siblings. Her father Alexander Semple, a merchant, died when she was 12 years old, but her mother Emerine Price Semple saw to it that her children were well educated, and Ellen received her early schooling from private tutors. In emulation of an older sister, she then enrolled at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1882 as valedictorian of her class. Semple taught school in her hometown of Louisville for the next several years, while expanding her education through wide-ranging reading of history and economics.

Around 1887, while traveling with her mother in Europe, Semple was exposed for the first time to Friedrich Ratzel's theories of anthropogeography—the effect of the physical environment on human societies. Quickly enamored with his teachings, she continued her studies with renewed vigor upon her return home. In 1891, she completed a written examination from Vassar and received a master's degree. Not long after, armed with her degree, Semple traveled to Germany to study with Ratzel at the University of Leipzig. The school did not admit women students, but she was permitted to audit his classes (segregated by seating from the male students) and soon became one of his best students. His theories, particularly that human societies in similar environments will develop in similar patterns, would be a major influence on her thinking. Semple and Ratzel also developed a close friendship, and she spent much time with his family.

Following her return to the United States, in 1893 Semple and one of her sisters founded Semple Collegiate School for Girls in Louisville. She taught history there until 1895, when she revisited Leipzig to engage in further study. By 1897, she had published her first scholarly article, "The Influence of the Appalachian Barrier upon Colonial History," in the Journal of School Geography.

Semple did anthropogeographic research in 1901, traveling by horseback in the backwoods of Kentucky and frequently staying with local inhabitants. The publication that June in Geographical Journal of her observations and theories, "The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains," was well received and earned her a scholarly reputation. She was thereafter invited to read her writings at the Geographical Congress in Washington, D.C., and before the Royal Geographical Society in London. Semple's first book-length manuscript, American History and Its Geographic Conditions, was published in 1903. In that work, which was occasionally adopted as a college textbook, she presented her ideas concerning the correlation between U.S. expansion and the geographical environment of North America. In 1911, she documented her studies in Leipzig in her most significant work, Influences of Geographic Environment, on the Basis of Ratzel's System of Anthropo-Geography. Semple developed the volume partly at the urging of Ratzel and partly to incorporate her own interpretations on the topics, and the result was far more than simply a description of her mentor's theories.

The following year, Semple toured the world for 18 months, visiting Japan, Mongolia, Greece, England, and the Mediterranean. This latter country would provide the basis for her last book, the fruit of 20 years' research, The Geography of the Mediterranean: Its Relation to Ancient History, published in 1931. Semple also taught at a number of major universities. In 1905 and 1912, she conducted a summer course at Oxford University, and from 1906 to 1924 she taught alternate years at the University of Chicago. She also taught at Wellesley College in 1914–15, at the University of Colorado in 1916, and at Columbia University in 1918. Three years later, she accepted a post as lecturer at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She remained at Clark until 1932, from 1923 as a professor of anthropogeography. As well, in the aftermath of World War I, Semple consulted for "The Inquiry," a mission convened to prepare for the peace talks at Versailles.

Semple's work was fundamental in establishing geography as a field of university study in the 20th century. The main gist of her theories—the "deterministic" approach, or the idea that societies cannot help but be shaped by their surroundings in a certain way—was replaced in her own lifetime by the "antideterministic" school of geographical thought, which holds rather that humankind can respond to environment in any number of ways, but her publications and scholarly methods helped to turn the field into a serious academic discipline. Semple received the Cullum Medal of the American Geographical Society in 1914, and in 1921 she was the first woman to be elected president of the Association of American Geographers. The University of Kentucky gave her an honorary LL.D. degree in 1923, and she received the gold medal of the Geographic Society of Chicago in 1932.

Semple, who was an asthmatic, suffered a severe heart attack in 1929, but continued to teach and completed her last book two years later. She died in West Palm Beach, Florida, of sepsis caused by a lung abscess, on May 8, 1932.


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Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California