Ellen Churchill Semple

Semple in 1914

People of the Inquiry: Ellen Churchill Semple (1863 - 1932)

Ellen Churchill Semple was a well-known geographer who is often associated with the theory of environmental determinism, or the idea that human behavior was caused by the environment.

Semple's legacy continues to attract attention from geographers. This AAG session for example, takes issue with her characterization as (only) an environmental determinist, and suggests that she played a much richer role in geography (training many geographers, for example).

It's little known that Semple was one of the few women to play a role in the Inquiry, where she worked on the Austro-Italian border frontier, as well as Mesopotamia. She wrote a least four substantial reports for the Inquiry (#s 500-503):

#500 June 17, 1918: "An Abridgement of the Partition of Asiatic Turkey"
#501 June 3, 1918: "Report on the Partition of Asiatic Turkey"
#502 February 1, 1918: "Report on the Geography, Climate, Commerce, Transportation, Agriculture, Livestock, and etc., of Mesopotamia"
#503 March 13, 1918: "Report on the Strategic Character of the Austro-Italian Frontier"

(Inquiry reports are available from NARA.)

The Austro-Italian border was of course a major controversy at the Peace Conference, and Semple seems to have taken a largely pro-Italian position (that is, the one that eventually won out when Italy was awarded large tracts of territory at Austria's expense).

Semple was hired in late December 1917, when she was at the University of Chicago as an assistant to Douglas Johnson at a salary of $150 per month. She was 54 years old at the time.

One of her co-workers, for whom she had just completed Report #501 above penned this ps on a letter to Isaiah Bowman: "Dr Bowman, Miss Semple has done some remarkably good and quick work." Bowman wrote to her directly a few days later saying "may I add to his good words my own appreciation of your report [on Asiatic Turkey]...I read [it] through carefully and I think it is a splendid piece of work." Bowman followed up this personal letter with an internal one to the Inquiry Executive Committee (which he headed): "She is one of the most important members of the geographic team."

Semple did not work continuously for the Inquiry, but she was re-hired to work for Mark Jefferson in early September 1918, again at the salary of $150 a month. Jefferson was working on a population map of Europe (one of his interests; Jefferson was something of a pioneer of population mapping) and he set Semple to collecting data on city sizes--a somewhat lowly task.

In November, Bowman wrote a letter to Semple telling her rather obliquely that she had been cut from the Inquiry and would be traveling to Paris along with the rest of the team. In fact, the Paris contingent would consist entirely of men. Here are excerpts from this letter from which you may be able to judge Bowman's rather officious nature:

November 9, 1918
We have to begin immediately making our final arrangements. The staff of the organization must be cut down at once very considerably -- to at least a fourth or a fifth of the organization that we have maintained up to this time. So little time remains [the Inquiry would sail on December 4, 1918] that I have to act rather quickly, and I am therefore writing this letter at once so that you may make whatever adjustments are required under the circumstances.

It is not the thought of the Inquiry that its people should have their services discontinued immediately without making an adjustment in salary, and I am glad to state that the powers that be concur in this thought. Your salary will be continued until December 15th...your own part has been a large and important one, and for this I am authorized to express the thanks of the government authorities.

Believe me,
Sincerely yours
Isaiah Bowman
After the war, Semple was the first woman to become President of the AAG (in 1921). There is an annual Semple Day at the University of Kentucky which is now in its 34th year (Semple was from Kentucky).

In 1974 it was revealed that Semple had suffered from salary discrimination while at Clark University. In an article in the Professional Geographer, Mildred Berman printed an excerpt from Churchill's will, in which she revoked a clause promising a bequest to Clark on the grounds that her salary was deliberately reduced because she "was a woman without dependents." Semple estimated that by so reducing her salary compared to her less distinguished male colleagues, Clark saved $2,500 on her salary.

Innes Keighren, a Ph.D student at the University of Edinburgh, is currently do0ing a doctoral dissertation on Semple and her 1911 book, Influences of Geographic Environment.

No comments: