Bowman, Isaiah (1878–1950)

Isaiah Bowman was arguably the most influential American geographer of the twentieth century, serving as the ambassador of the discipline to policymakers and the nation at large (Figure 1). Born in 1878 and educated at Harvard and Yale, he began his career with a research focus on geomorphology but soon became interested in human–environment interactions, particularly in the Andes Mountains. He led several expeditions to the Andean regions, in 1907, 1911, and 1913. The purpose of his 1907 expedition was to investigate the hypothesis of William Morris Davis that peneplanation was responsible for many Andean landscapes. In this expedition he initially followed the shores of Peru and Chile before heading inland to Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, and Peru. Following the expedition, Bowman believed Morris’s hypotheis to be true. Bowman’s 1911 expedition was relatively short, taking place entirely in Peru, visiting Mollendo, Arequipa, and the Urubamba river valley. The goal of this expedition was to map the topography of the region from Cuzco to the coast. In the aftermath Bowman was forced to moderate his earlier claims about peneplanation, including glaciation and volcanic activity among the list of factors. This expedition was largely eclipsed by the simultaneous ‘discovery’ of Maccu Piccu by Bowman’s colleague and fellow traveler, Hiram Bingham. The 1913 expedition was a wide ranging trip through Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, beginning in Buenos Aires. It was less significant in regards to his conclusions than the previous two trips.

Isaiah Bowman

At the time of Bowman’s expeditions, the American Geographical Society (AGS) was a social club that dabbled in the financing and fe?ting of explorers. With the exploration of the Earth’s poles nearing its conclusion, the organization hired Bowman as its director in 1915. He immediately refocused the organization as an institution of academic research, doubling its membership and increasing its public presence.

Bowman’s directorship of the AGS enabled him to become a public face for the discipline. President Wilson’s need for geographic information during World War I with which to construct a post war peace led him to create the House Inquiry (1917–19), an idealistic attempt to institute self determination for the peoples of Eastern Europe through detailed mapping of cultural and other variables. As the public face of geography, Bowman was invited to participate, bringing with him the facilities and skills of the AGS. Bowman’s contributions to the Versailles settlement that concluded World War I are many and various, but he is perhaps best known for championing the existence of a Polish state. The ‘scientific’ answer to geopolitical problems would remain a hallmark of Bowman’s career. After the war Bowman worked more as a political geographer than as a physical geographer, although he continued to focus on the relationship between landscape and people. Bowman was included among President Wilson’s advisors in Paris after the war; however, his unhappiness with the failure of the US Senate to ratify the League of Nations led him to help found the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization of academics and intellectuals dedicated to promoting an internationalist foreign policy for the United States. His highly successful post war text, The New World in 1921, portrayed the geography of the world as open to American hegemony and political dominance. In 1931 he was elected president of the International Geographical Union and in 1933 he became chair of the National Research Council.

Selected to be the fifth president of Johns Hopkins University in 1935, he inherited a university with a large deficit, and one of his major accomplishments during his tenure was to improve the university’s finances through a capital raising campaign, and also through his alignment of university research agendas with the needs of the United States’ military during World War II. Johns Hopkins scientists provided major support to the military through two contributions in particular: the proximity fuse used in antiaircraft ammunition and support in the Manhattan Project, the project to develop the atomic bomb. During the war, Bowman further aligned his vision of American hegemony with the disciplinary project. He raised funds for the creation of a school of geography at Johns Hopkins with the goal being to create a continual source of geographic knowledge to be fed into the policymaking apparatus of the state. The school of geography, however, never matured, as personnel changes left the school always in a state of flux, and when Harvard closed its geography department in 1948, Johns Hopkins followed suit shortly thereafter.

During World War II, Bowman played a critical role once again as an advisor for President Roosevelt, assisting in a project to find frontier areas for refugees to colonize. Bowman’s own inter war research had been on frontier settlements, in which he argued that although the Turner Frontier Hypothesis was true in a historical sense, there were still internal frontiers in which human adaptation to, and modification of, the environment could lead to expanded settlement. The Turner thesis had argued that the closing of the western frontier presaged the end of the process by which American identity had been forged. Bowman argued that the process could continue by turning inward. Arguing that this research could be applied to the refugee problem during World War II, including the question of a Jewish homeland, Bowman led the M Project, which sought geographical solutions for population shifts. Later Bowman became incorporated into Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisors in the negotiation of the post war order. Although he argued futilely against the division of Germany, Bowman was very influential in the shaping of the United Nations, again (as in his time with Wilson) arguing for an internationalist foreign policy. Fiercely anticommunist, Bowman viewed the Cold War stymieing of his post war architecture for peace and American prosperity as a product of Soviet intransigence.

After the war, he played controversial roles in the establishment of the National Science Foundation and in the disestablishment of the Harvard Department of Geography that he himself had graduated from. In his personal life, Bowman was known by acquaintances to be polite but aloof. Ambitious and hard working, Bowman had few hobbies, save playing table tennis with his daughter, Olive, as well as listening to music and going to the theater. He died in January 1950.