#Geography and Institutional Barriers: GEO’s Elimination at Harvard-1948

eight minute read

The publication of “Academic War Over the Field of Geography” by Neil Smith sent shock waves through the discipline of geography’s academic community. Smith’s purpose in writing the piece was to begin a conversation about the state of geography through reclaiming the history of the Harvard debacle. Central to the aims in publishing the piece was to bring about a clear archival reconstruction of what happened since a “fog of mythology” had ensued since the event that stifled generative discussion on the matter. Of course, for Neil Smith such an undertaking in writing the piece was in line with his careful charting of how “counter-revolutionary forms of geographical knowledge were created and used.” Smith was determined “that academic geography can never – and should never – seek to rise above its changing socio-economic and political contexts” and in writing the article, Smith exposed the institutional barriers holding academic geography back while chronicling the pivotal events leading to its demise at Harvard.

Neil Smith was an influential scholar whose research spanned studies in space and place, nature, social theory, and history. Trained by the field-redefining powerhouse geographer David Harvey at Johns Hopkins University, Neil Smith was geography’s “pre-eminent urban theorist” and a quintessential Marxist scholar respected by academics and activists the world over. For Smith, his obsession with Isaiah Bowman who was a key player in the elimination of geography at Harvard became a way of contributing to the history of geographic thought while illustrating how the debacle helped situate the field within an ongoing battle for geography’s efficacy within the ivory tower.[1] Smith claimed that the “institutional weakness of the discipline as a whole contributed to the outcome at Harvard; and that geography was weak inside Harvard, but was also marginalized by the ambiguity of its own self-conception.”[2]

 The Central Players Involved in the Elimination of Geography at Harvard

Marland Billings

Marland Billings was a Professor of Geology and Chairman of the Division of Geological Sciences at Harvard and “initiated the attack on the geography program at Harvard.” Billings was aggrieved that geology which was the discipline from which he was trained and practiced had suffered a setback through the promotion recommendation of Edward Ackerman. Initially Ackerman’s role was divided equally between geology and geography, but upon promotion Ackerman’s appointment would be solely in geography. Billings had not been a proponent of the expansion of geography, “especially if it would adversely affect geology.”[3] Billings, using his status as a senior faculty member and program director worked to separate geology and geography since, according to Billings, the two disciplines  “differed so markedly” and that there existed in him a “’profound skepticism’ concerning the importance of human geography’—this action would set the pace for geography’s demise at Harvard. In the campaign to separate the two fields it provided upper level administrators a close view into the distinctions that would serve to allow certain parties to deploy value judgments on which discipline was a science and which one was not.

Derwent Whittlesey

          If there was to be an underdog in the controversy of the elimination of the geography department at Harvard Derwent Whittlesey fits the bill.  In Smith’s appraisal Whittlesey’s sexual orientation as well as his scholarly focus made him a target of more conservative forces at the university and beyond. Whittlesey was a political geographer and derived a great deal of his work from the social sciences. Also trained as an historian Whittlesey’s scholarship provided a sociocultural bent centered on the aerial differentiation of political structure and events. It seems that certain geology purists at Harvard found such lines of inquiry not worthy of expansion. Whittlesey was a staunch supporter of his colleague Edward Ackerman and did his best to advocate for the favorable adjudication of the promotion. But Whittlesey’s influence in the department was limited and found that Ackerman would be fired and the department eliminated. Whittlesey would now be the sole geographer with even less influence to shape program policy.

Isaiah Bowman

          Influential and well-respected Isaiah Bowman played a major role in the elimination of geography at Harvard. Bowman came into the affair as a member of the ad hoc committee to review Edward Ackerman’s promotion, yet Bowman was also a close friend of then president of Harvard James Conant. Neil Smith informs that “Bowman and Conant were in the forefront of New Deal attempts at the mobilization of science for public purposes.” It seems that a large part of Bowman’s interactions and intentions with Conant was to exert influence into what truly defines geography as a field. Despite Bowman’s high-profile positions with the State Department and illustrious posts that put him on first-name basis with the Woodrow Wilson as well as Franklin Roosevelt administrations, Bowman was an anti-Semite and deeply homophobic.

Bowman disliked Whittlesey, Neil Smith referred to it as “intellectual antipathy” but certain remarks made by Bowman about Whittlesey suggest a revulsion on the part of Bowman so deeply homophobic where he made sordid implications into Whittlesey’s dealing with male students.

 The years following the Great Depression leading up to WWII period were far from culturally tolerant (Hitler’s Third Reich, the Long Jim Crow attests to that); men like Isaiah Bowman with influence over higher education, global politics, and the geography discipline as a whole were set on defining all things as rigidly as possible in an effort to make these elements of public life comport with their personal worldviews. Despite Bowman being an advocate for geography as a discipline, he had no intentions of supporting the retention of the geography department at Harvard. For Bowman, “human geography, divorced from physical geography, had no ground to stand on and no established body of principles … but instead tended to ‘skim off the top of the other sciences.” Those beliefs along with his intense disdain for the program resulted in Bowman ultimately sounding the death knell for the program of geography at Harvard.

James Conant

 James Conant was the president of Harvard during the controversy and like many in university leadership during that time, the need to retrench after the Great Depression was the highest priority. A leader in wartime defense tactics, he helped “produce chemical weapons for the U.S. Army, and even after his appointment to Harvard in 1933 remained an active specialist on the military uses of science.”[4] Conant was a chemist by training and as a member of the National Defense Research Committee Conant was entrusted to “conduct research for the creation and improvement of instrumentalities, methods and materials of warfare.”[5] Conant’s research investments dealt with responding to the needs of a country at war, his leadership investments as the president of Harvard meant using every opportunity to remove programs that did not appear to deliver suitable returns. With Bowman at his side referring to the department of geography at Harvard as an “intellectual kindergarten” it is not wonder that Conant decided to support closing the department.

Paul Buck

Paul Buck was the “Provost of Harvard in 1948, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the administrator most directly responsible for deciding against geography.”[6] It was Buck who had concerns about managing issues that had arisen in the geography department and was the first point of contact when Marland Billings began voicing concerns regarding Edward Ackerman’s promotion and the disciplinary contrasts between geology and geography.

Buck was trained as an historian winning the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1939 for a book he wrote on the political history of Reconstruction in the United States, yet despite Buck’s humanities background his foremost concern as a university administrator was reducing controversy and presenting the college with ways to manage a looming financial crisis.

          The power dynamics inherent within institutional roles loom large in each of the central players’ ability to mitigate the problematic elements of the geography debacle. It is clear that those faculty members with senior status like Billings had greater access to upper level administration, while Whittlesey who was prominent within his field of study had the admiration of students and some faculty but not the political network of university “brass” needed on campus to advocate effectively for his cause. Despite Whittlesey bringing together a number of stellar individuals outside of Harvard in defense of Ackerman’s promotion, it was no match for the weight of the university political machine whose priorities were less about the robustness of an intellectual consciousness at one of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning but more about reducing costs.


[1] Don Mitchell. “Neil Smith, 1954–2012: Marxist Geographer.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104, no. 1 (2014).

[2] Neil Smith, “‘Academic War Over the Field of Geography’: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947–1951,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77, no. 2 (1987): pp. 155-172, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8306.1987.tb00151.x)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, Smith.

[5] Stewart, Irvin (1948). Organizing Scientific Research for War: The Administrative History of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

[6] Neil Smith, “‘Academic War Over the Field of Geography’: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947–1951,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77, no. 2 (1987): pp. 155-172, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8306.1987.tb00151.x)

***featured image: View and Plan of Toledo (Spanish: Vista y plano de Toledo, ca. 1608) by El Greco

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s