Officers and Councilors
History of the American
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.
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 right from the start.
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.
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.
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.
This year, the
American Geographical Society celebrates 150 years of exemplary
service to science, the nation, and the world. Many of the society’s
accomplishments are astonishing by any standard.
AGS led American scientific efforts to explore the Arctic. Much
was left to discover in 1851. World maps still contained sizable
swatches of terra incognita. 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.
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
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).
Cartography at the AGS has set pioneering standards. In addition to the
Millionth Map, the Society prepared the best yet map of Antarctica and
some of the earliest charts for aerial navigation. The Society was also
a pioneer in aerial photography, covering the entire continent of
Africa, for instance, when the only airplanes were single-engine
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.
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."||
Many famous people
have consulted the AGS and used its scholarly resources or have
been associated with the AGS as Fellows, Councilors, officers,
Medalists, donors, or exploration/research staff. Among