Six Famous Geographers

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Geography is the study of the earth.

Things like natural ecosystems, physical features, migration patterns, ethnic distribution patterns, and other facets of human-environment interaction are all the province of the geographer.

Today, not many people could name a famous geographer. In the past, when much of the world was still exotic and unexplored, geographers occupied a crucial role in society.

These six geographers are noteworthy for their contribution to the science of geography.

Eratosthenes

The first spot has to go to the man who coined the term geography, Eratosthenes (c.275–194 BC).

He created one of the earliest maps of the known world between 276-195 BC, but his greatest contribution was the concept of latitude and longitude.

Eratosthenes came up with the word geography from the roots “geo” (the earth) and “graphein” (to write).

He was also the first man ever to be able to calculate the size of the earth (with a minimal 2% error), the earth’s axial tilt, and possibly even its distance from the sun.

Even without these other remarkable accomplishments, Eratosthenes would still be notable as the man who coined geography.

Eratosthenes teaching in Alexandria by Bernardo Strozzi (1635).  Image: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, public domain.
Eratosthenes teaching in Alexandria by Bernardo Strozzi (1635). Image: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, public domain.

Al Idrisi

The second is the 12th century geographer and cartographer Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti, also called Al Idrisi, or Dreses (1100 – 1165)

He’s just as famous for being a cartographer as he is for a geographer.

A pre-Renaissance Renaissance man, Al Idrisi didn’t just create the map of Eurasia and north Africa found in the Tabula Rogeriana, he also wrote an extremely detailed account of all of the geographical features, ethnic groups, socioeconomic factors, and other features of every area he drew.

His information was gleaned from interviews with visitors to the areas he wrote about, as well as his own travels- in a time period when few people traveled more than five or ten miles from their homes, he had visited Spain, Portugal, France, Anatolia, and England by age sixteen, and traveled even more extensively later in life.

The Tabula Rogeriana is his most famous work of geography and cartography, and was created for King Roger II of Sicily.

Al-Idrisi completed a detailed map of the world in Tabula Rogeriana, which means the Map of Roger in Latin. This copy of Idrisi's map was created by K. Miller in 1928 as part of a restoration of the 1154 map. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.
Al-Idrisi completed a detailed map of the world in Tabula Rogeriana, which means the Map of Roger in Latin. This copy of Idrisi’s map was created by K. Miller in 1928 as part of a restoration of the 1154 map. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.

Alexander von Humboldt

Next is Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859)

Alexander von Humboldt was an explorer and naturalist during the 18th-19th centuries.

Photograph of Alexander von Humboldt taken in the 1850s.  Image: Library of Congress, public domain.
Photograph of Alexander von Humboldt taken in the 1850s. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.

His work laid the foundation for the science of biogeography. He was the first person to develop the idea that weather patterns, geology, and biology all played a part in determining which plants were capable of thriving in which areas.

He painstakingly collected geographical and biological data over a period of years, and carefully traced the relationships he found between them. The end result was the Kosmos, a multi-volume work that covered the aspects of geography and natural science that he devoted his life to.

Isothermal chart, or, View of climates & productions / drawn from the accounts of Humboldt & others, by W.C. Woodbridge.
Isothermal chart, or, View of climates & productions / drawn from the accounts of Humboldt & others, by W.C. Woodbridge.

Immanuel Kant

Fourth is Immanuel Kant  (April 22, 1724 – February 12, 1804).

Though Kant is known more for being an 18th century philosopher than a geographer, his work is a large part of the reason why geography is treated as a legitimate science today.

He believed that geography classified things according to place, while history classified things according to time. As a result, according to Kant, geography had an important place in virtually every facet of knowledge.

In 1757, Immanuel Kant became the first to specifically teach geography as its own subject while at the University of Königsberg.

By establishing the academic importance of geography, he lent more legitimacy to geography as an intellectual discipline.

In 1802 Friedrich Theodor Rink published a copy of Immanuel Kant's geography lecture notes.  Image: Google, public domain.
In 1802 Friedrich Theodor Rink published a copy of Immanuel Kant’s geography lecture notes. Image: Google via HathiTrust, public domain.

Carl Ritter

Next, one of the most important figures in modern geography is Carl Ritter (August 7, 1779 – September 28, 1859).

A lithograph of Carl Ritter  by Rudolf Hoffmann, 1857.  Image: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, public domain.
A lithograph of Carl Ritter by Rudolf Hoffmann, 1857. Image: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, public domain.

Working during the 19th century, Ritter treated the various geographical features of the world like organs in the human body – he believed that each one interacted with the others to create a cohesive whole, and that, just like a person’s organs determined their health, the geographic features of a place affected the history of its inhabitants.

He wrote the 19-volume Geography in Relation to Nature and the History of Mankind (Die Erdkunde im Verhältniss zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen), and, along with Kant, was instrumental in establishing geography as a field of study.

Arnaldo Faustini

Arnaldo Faustini is the man for whom the Faustini moon crater is named. He was a geographer, writer, and cartographer born in 1872 that lived until 1944. 

He specialized in the poles, and wrote nineteen different books on subjects having to do with the poles alone, as well as countless other articles on them.

He knew several polar explorers of the time, helped them translate accounts of their journeys into other languages, and drew maps of the areas they explored. Faustini’s fascination with the poles formed the foundation for several polar explorations, and his work is still on display in the Polar Museum in Fermo, Italy.

1906 copy by Faustini of the 1802 map of the Antarctic island of South Georgia by Capt. Isaac Pendleton.  Public domain.
1906 copy by Faustini of the 1802 map of the Antarctic island of South Georgia by Capt. Isaac Pendleton. Public domain.

Most of the best geographers were also cartographers, and vice versa. Both map making and geography are labors of love that are just as much art as science. While many cartographers were artists and writers, many geographers were philosophers and explorers.

All famous geographers exhibited a curiosity about the world and people around them, and developed new ways of interpreting the things they saw. These people helped shape our understanding of how the natural world influences the course of human history, from things like the areas where people tended to settle, to the establishment of trade and cultural exchange routes, to the development of different cultures worldwide.

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