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Life and Career of Ellen Churchill Semple: Career

Guide about the life of Ellen Churchill Semple and her contributions to the field of human geography

Professional Life

Ellen Semple tried teaching for a period of time but soon learned that teaching alone was not sufficiently challenging for her mind.  She was stimulated by frequent discussions with professional and literary men and women in Louisville and continued to read in the disciplines of sociology, economics and geography.  It was during this period or while at Vassar that she came in contact with the writings of Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer and ethnographer who was developing the science of anthropogeography (the study of the geographical distribution of humankind and the relationship between human beings and their environment) and stayed behind at the end of a trip to England with her mother to study with Ratzel in Leipzig.  She remained in Leipzig for 18 months reading and studying before returning to America for a time but in 1895 she returned to Leipzig for further work with Ratzel.

In 1897 she published her first article and averaged more than one article a year for the rest of her life.   Her publishing career can be divided into three distinct periods:

1897-1903 – Miss Semple introduced the anthropogeographic method into American journals and to American students.  It was during this period that she published “The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains” in The Geographical Journal (1901). This period ended with the publication of American History and Its Geographic Conditions in 1903.

1904-1911 – Miss Semple published 11 articles and one book based on her field work in the Lower St. Lawrence area and 3 philosophical studies dealing with the inter-relation of geography and history. This period culminated with the publication of Influences of Geographic Environment in 1911.

1912-1931 – Beginning in 1915 Miss Semple turned her attention to the Phoenicians, Greeks and other people of the Mediterranean. She traveled widely and worked in the great libraries of Rome, Paris and London gathering material for her monumental work Geography of the Mediterranean Region written largely from her sick-bed and published in 1931.  Miss Semple’s final publication was a revision of American History and its Geographic Conditions, a collaboration with Clarence Fielden Jones.  This work was published posthumously in 1933.

In addition to her writings, Miss Semple was a much sought after lecturer.  She lectured the summer term at Oxford University in 1912 and was asked to return in 1914. She presented before the Royal Geographic Society in London and Scotland and she gave a course of lectures on the geography of the Italian Front to officers at Camp Zachary Taylor (Louisville, Ky.) in the autumn of 1917 and  lectured at Columbia University in 1918. In 1921, Miss Semple became professor of anthropogeography in the School of Geography at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, an appointment that she held until her death. Miss Semple continued lecturing and teaching at other institutions including Vassar, University of Michigan, University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Kentucky.

In autumn of 1929 Ellen Semple suffered a serious heart attack for which she never fully recovered.  She continued to work from her bed generally only two hours a day.  With the help of a former graduate student who aided in the document and editorial phase of the work, Miss Semple completed her 737 page Geography of the Mediterranean Region which was published in 1931.  Ellen Semple died in West Palm Beach Florida on May 11, 1932, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the field of Geography.

Taken largely from Colby, Charles C. 1933. "Ellen Churchill Semple". Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 28(4): 229-240. 

Ellen Churchill Semple, 1895

from the Ellen Churchill Semple Photographs collection, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Honors and Awards

  • Charter member and Councilor of the Association of American Geographers (AAG)
  • American Geographical Society Cullom Gold Medal for her "distinguished contributions to the science of Anthropogeography", 1914
  • First woman President of the AAG , 1921
  • Honorary degree (LL.D.) University of Kentucky, 1923. Ellen Churchill Semple Room established in University Library.
  • Helen Culver Gold Metal "for distinguished leadership and eminent achievement in geography", 1931 
  • Ellen Churchill Semple Day, University of Kentucky Department of Geography. Annual lecture since 1973