Semple, Ellen

Semple, Ellen (Churchill)

(1863–1932) geographer; born in Louisville, Ky. She studied at Vassar College (1882), later earning an M.A. there before traveling to Leipzig where she audited Friedrich Ratzel's courses (1891–92) because women could not enroll in the university. After founding a girls' school in Louisville with her sister (1893), she pursued a career of writing and field research. Her first book, American History and Its Geographic Conditions (1903), gained a broad public and led to her being invited to lecture in America and Europe. Her second and most important book, Influences of Geographic Environment on the Basis of Ratzel's System of Anthropo-Geography (1911), was intended as an interpretation of that German geographer's ideas, but her own thoughts strongly colored the text; in particular, she stressed that physical environment strongly influences not only how humans act but how they view the world. After a world tour of 18 months, she returned to the U.S.A. and taught at various colleges until settling at Clark University (Mass.) (1921–32). She published her third major work, The Geography of the Mediterranean Region (1931), just before she died. Although subsequent generations of geographers tend to reject her strict deterministic views, she remains a respected pioneer in her field.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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