Eighteen fifty-one was a time of keen interest in Polar exploration, and Sir John Franklin’s expedition had been missing in the Arctic for four years. Tantalizing rumors hinted that survivors might be stranded at one place or another.
Lady Franklin appealed for help, and rescue missions were launched. In our own time, that would be like having astronauts stranded in space, unable to tell the world where they are or what they found, and watching their families plead for rescue. The double appeal of compassion and curiosity aroused a small band of scholars, businessmen, and statesmen to found the American Geographical Society. Interestingly, membership was open to both men and women from the start.
Thus from its birth in 1851, the AGS has pursued exploration with a passion for science and discovery. The Society was the earliest such institution founded in Anglophone America. The founders laid the groundwork for geographical inquiry in Northern America. However, it took three remarkable people to establish the importance of the society on the world stage: Judge Charles P. Daly, Archer M. Huntington, and Isaiah Bowman. The AGS made great strides under their leadership.
Judge Daly presided over AGS from 1864 to 1899. In his 40 years as a member, 35 of it as president, he was famous for his annual address to the society’s members. As an ardent geographer, he was also instrumental in expanding the society’s library collection, which became the largest, privately maintained geographical research library and map collection in the Western Hemisphere.
Archer M. Huntington took over the reins as president in 1907. A fellow of the society since 1893, Huntington devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge and philanthropic activity. He was the society’s outstanding financial benefactor. His mother, Anna, gave the land and he gave the money so that the society could build, at 156th Street and Broadway, “a suitable building for its own use…”
Dr. Isaiah Bowman is credited with establishing the international standing of the American Geographical Society. As director, Bowman spearheaded many new projects, such as the construction of the Millionth Map and studies of polar geography. Bowman also represented the society as an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. He was one of the founders and guiding lights of the Council of Foreign Relations in its early decades.
Over the years the society has done yeoman service to the field of geography, the business community, and the nation. It has sponsored expeditions; presented lectures, conferences, and symposia; awarded honors to scholars and explorers; and conducted research on a wide range of geographical topics. In addition to work undertaken on its own initiative, the society has performed geographical research and specialized cartography under contract for many branches of the United States government, the National Science Foundation, the Center for Disease Control, American universities, and corporations. Its work has been innovative in technique as well as subject. The Society also awards a medals to geographers, both in terms of their training and their practices, who have distinguished themselves for their contributions to geographical knowledge.
American Geographical Society Highlights
The AGS led American scientific efforts to explore the Arctic. World maps still contained sizable swatches of terra incognita when the Society was founded in 1851. The general public wasn’t convinced of the value of filling those blanks, but scholars, businessmen, and statesmen at the AGS were. The Society sponsored expeditions, helped train and prepare explorers, and published findings. With AGS support, Robert Peary led several expeditions, one of them while serving as AGS President, and finally reached the North Pole in 1909. Black explorer Matthew Henson reached the Pole with Peary, and Henson himself was publicly honored by the AGS at its centennial banquet in 1951.
In 1851, much of the western United States was unexplored, but that was about to change in preparation for the Trans-Continental Railway, subject of the very first paper presented before the Society. A heated national debate ensued, and the AGS contributed mightily to those deliberations for twenty years by supporting projects, serving as a neutral forum for information on all routes, and ultimately compiling the most complete map of its day for comparing the five candidate routes.
As early as 1854, two guest speakers separately informed the Society of a proposed ship canal crossing Central America. In the 1870s, selecting a route for the Panama Canal became a paramount interest among the Councilors, two of whom attended an 1879 congress on the topic, held in Paris and chaired by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal.
During World War I, the interdisciplinary, government-sponsored “Inquiry” in preparation for the Paris Peace Conference was led by the AGS and headquartered in the Society’s building in New York. After the Armistice in 1918, President Wilson and the American Delegation sailed for France. With them sailed AGS Director Isaiah Bowman and three truckloads of geographical information compiled by Bowman and 150 geographers, historians, economists, statisticians, ethnographers, political scientists, and scholars of international law.
After World War I, the Society undertook an ambitious effort to map “Hispanic America” as part of the international effort to map the entire world at 1:1,000,000. The venture lasted from 1920 to 1945 and eventually produced 107 map sheets at a total cost of more than one-half million dollars, mostly in private donations. During World War II, the Society assisted more than forty agencies of the U.S. government.
The AGS has a distinguished record as a research institution and “think tank” with publications that are classics in geography: e.g. Owen Lattimore’s Inner Asian Frontiers of China, Jacques May’s Atlas of Disease, L. Dudley Stamp’s Land for Tomorrow, Kenneth Bertrand’s Americans in Antarctica, 1775-1948, and Stephen Haden-Guest et al.’s World Geography of Forest Resources.
The AGS has sponsored many expeditions of exploration and field research, especially to polar regions, such as the last privately financed expedition to Antarctica (the Finn Ronne expedition of 1947-1948).
Fundamentally, the AGS was established by business people (leading executives and investors in shipping, railroads, banking, telegraph, and oil industries) and public servants (governors, military officers, diplomats, jurists) to produce and disseminate up-to-date, high-quality geographical data and analysis important to them and useful to others.
As a “learned society”, the AGS has continued to be the traditional link between geographical scholarship and the outside world, especially the business sector. For that reason, the AGS provides research-based, internationally circulated publications, written by professional geographers but carefully edited to be understandable to non-geographers as well as to geographers. The Geographical Review is the flagship publication of the AGS and released its 100th volume in 2010.
The Society and its members participate in a range of professional and practical arenas of geography knowledge building. Its publication Focus reaches geography educators and provides insightful articles by professional geographers suitable for use in the classroom. Research expeditions explore issues of cultural ecology and have introduced GIS techniques to strengthen land rights of indigenous people. Scholarship published in the Geographical Review contributes to a range of current topics and advances understanding of diverse peoples and places.
On October 29, 2001, the AGS was awarded the Scottish Geographical Medal at the Annual Awards Dinner of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Barony Hall, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. The Earl of Dalkeith KBE, DL, who is President of the RSGS, presented the medal and William Doyle (AGS President) received it on behalf of the AGS. The RSGS presented the medal in recognition of the “outstanding contributions of the American Geographical Society over the past 150 years.”