Gladys Wrigley and Isaiah Bowman at the American Geographical Society. Copyright American Geographical Society c1922. Used by Jason VanHorn with permission Featured

The First Woman to Earn a PhD in Geography in the United States

By Jason E. VanHorn

The knock came at my door and a colleague came into my office, “Can I bother you for two minutes to see something?” My colleague led me into a research room down the hall in the department and handed me a flashlight. “Look at that rock sample,” she said, pointing to a reddish petrified wood specimen. I turned on the flashlight and audibly gasped— in the rock were dozens of beautiful golden minerals, illuminated by the black-light flashlight in my hand. I pulled it away and saw, with normal light, the minerals were just slightly shaded a different red. They were, seemingly, hidden in plain sight, their fluorescence only to be illuminated by the black-light instrument in my hand.

Gladys M. Wrigley is like that fluorescent mineral, a tremendous scholar hidden in plain sight. Perhaps you’ve never heard of her, and I wouldn’t be surprised. However, her influence upon the discipline of geography is massively profound yet often understated.

Dr. Gladys Wrigley was the first woman to earn a PhD in Geography at an American educational institution.[i] In 1917, Dr. Wrigley earned the PhD at Yale (advised by Isaiah Bowman and E. Huntington[ii]) with “Roads and Towns of the Central Andes”.[iii] It is important to remember that geography at Yale was within the Department of Geology.[iv]  Many geography programs in the United States were borne out of geology departments and as Geoff Martin says, “The Yale Geology Department developed strength in human geography without equal in the country”.[v] Even though a Geology Department, it appears that geographers have distinguished Wrigley,[vi] because Wrigley’s course work was predominantly geography. Martin does say that Ruth S. Harvey may have been the first PhD granted to a woman in geography, which was 1908, but it appears her coursework was primarily geology. Thus, Wrigley has the distinction as the first because her course work was geography.[vii]

In 1915, Wrigley joined the staff of the American Geographical Society (AGS) when Dr. Isaiah Bowman become the Director that year.[viii] The Society’s journal, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, was transformed into a new journal, Geographical Review, in 1916.[ix] Wrigley was hired on a five-year appointment in early 1915 to be a research assistant and then assistant editor.[x] Bowman thought of the ‘Bulletin’ as a journal for teachers of geography and he wanted to transform it into a new journal, and thus consulted with geographers WLG Jorge and Gladys Wrigley on the new name.[xi] Its new purpose was to “broaden the range and deepen the intellectual interest of its articles, and to give its notes and reviews a more critical and scholarly quality”.[xii]

By 1920, Wrigley had become editor of the Geographical Review,[xiii] a position she would hold for nearly 30 years. Dr. Wrigley assumed the editorial prerogative to accept and edit submitted material to the journal, a rarity in the male-dominated discipline of geography.[xiv] Her successor, Wilma B. Fairchild,[xv] described Wrigley as having the highest standards, self-effacing, acutely private and “brilliant, creative, generous, and with an irrepressible sense of fun”.[xvi] Bowman said that she could, “stir the imagination of others and inspire them to turn their observations and experiments into readable accounts of solid professional worth”.[xvii] During her tenure, nothing escaped her editorial eye and she edited some of the most important works in geographical thought in the 20th Century. Her successor, Wilma Fairchild writes:

She once turned down a manuscript by Mark Jefferson and consoled him by saying that on an earlier occasion she had turned down a manuscript by Dr. Bowman! Often, in writing to aspiring authors, she prefaced a rejection by the phrase, “This is not for the Review,” and then went on to state explicitly in what way the material was inappropriate or inadmissible. Moreover, articles that were accepted were ruthlessly pruned. Robert Cushman Murphy, the noted naturalist, once asked Miss Wrigley what she did when she first began to edit a manuscript. “Why,” she replied, “I take out all of the author’s favorite phrases.” But in fact she was always careful to preserve the flavor of an author’s style.[xviii]

Wrigley commented that she was thankful to be the editor and not have to report to an editorial board, which kept with her high standards and timeliness.[xix]

As editor, she published her swan song in 1952 upon the occasion of her retirement by describing her years of service as a series of serendipitous moments.[xx] Clearly from Wrigley’s own words, Geographical Review during this time was a significant force as a primary source of knowledge about the physical earth and its human habitation of landscape, cultures, and geopolitics.  Wrigley describes the incredibly relevant, immediate, and timely response of geographers in writing meaningful articles of research on world affairs of both human and physical events. She recounts how Geographical Review was popular among the Washington DC government and military leaders before and after WWII. In those days, I liken the ‘Review’ to how the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’ acts in the present-day to provide meaningful and timely knowledge about world affairs, written predominantly by PhD scholars. She credits Bowman for garnering global attention to the journal because of his work before the end of WWI in the AGS-led ‘Inquiry’ (the work led by Bowman at the AGS headquarters to provide the essential knowledge to Woodrow Wilson which led to the US Presidents’ ‘Fourteen Points’)[xxi] and especially during and after the post-WWI Paris Peace talks, which gave rise to European geographers submitting articles for Geographical Review (Although she never would say it, Wrigley contributed to the ‘Inquiry’ effort too with six articles on Africa).[xxii]

Beyond her significant leadership to guide the journal that, arguably, represented the best of geographical research during her years as Editor, she left an indelible mark on the world of journal practice and standard. The successor to Wilma Fairchild, Douglas McManis said of Wrigley’s work,

For the most part, the policies, strategies, and practices that she adopted and implemented have since become commonplace in scholarly publishing, so taken for granted that one forgets they had a beginning…I counted more than a dozen guidelines that reflect now-standard editorial policies and practices.[xxiii]

 He found through the practices of Wrigley for the Geographical Review:

  • Editing process as an exchange between editorial staff and author;
  • The primary duty of the journal to produce the best format for the reader;
  • Authors must adapt their materials to maximize efficient and timely publishing;
  • The journal must attempt to expand readership;
  • The journal must include cutting-edge geographic research;
  • Articles should be thought-provoking and build upon past research;
  • Disciplinary boundaries can be exceeded for the purpose of knowledge exchange.

Wrigley set the tone and expectations for the best journal in geography of her time and paved the way for others in the discipline and perhaps, because of its popularity, other journal practices beyond Geography. She set the standard for engagement in scientific writing in geography and made everyone strive for excellence. After her retirement, she stayed on as a consultant and became good friends with her successor, Wilma Fairchild.[xxiv]

Her work was revered amongst competing geographical societies. For example, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) began awarding a yearly Distinguished Achievement Award in 1951. For those who don’t know, the AAG had its own competing journal, The Annals of the Association of American Geographers, and was considered one of the most elite, exclusive, and male-dominated, geographical societies in the United States from its inception in 1904 to its merger with the American Society of Professional Geographers (ASPG) in 1948.[xxv] Instead of giving the first award to a faculty member for their outstanding theoretical, philosophical, and empirical research contributions, the AAG presented the meritorious award to just one person, Dr. Gladys M. Wrigley.[xxvi]

We shouldn’t be surprised at how excellent and capable Dr. Wrigley was at her work, but we should be thankful she guided the ship with amazing acumen to identify the cutting-edge knowledge, copyedit to perfection each article, and was the shrewd gatekeeper of the highest standards in geography. The American Geographic Society honors her legacy and that of Wilma Fairchild, with the Wrigley-Fairchild Prize, which is awarded every three years for the best article of an early-career published scholar.[xxvii] But there is more we can do.

Like the fluorescent golden minerals that were hidden in plain sight and illuminated with a special light, perhaps we can consider, in humility and appreciation, the tremendous leadership of Dr. Gladys M. Wrigley and we can write more about her influence. We can write the histories of the geographic discipline with acknowledgement and depth of Dr. Wrigley’s rich contribution. She may have been the first woman to earn a PhD in geography from an American educational institution, but her most enduring legacy has its fingerprint on every letter, every word, every sentence, every thought, that was communicated in Geographical Review from its beginnings to 1948. She directed geographic thought, she initiated calls for new knowledge that was timely and accurate, she set the standard of expectations in geographic scientific writing, and her scrupulous insistence on excellence impacted the history of science in no small way.

The author, Dr. Jason E. VanHorn, is a member of the American Geographical Society (AGS), the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and other professional geographic societies. He is a Professor of Geography at Calvin University and directs the Masters of Geographic Information Science program. He is an expert in the history of American geography and teaches courses in cartography, GIS, remote sensing, and the philosophy of geographic thought. Visit the Bruce Dice Mineralogical Museum at Calvin University to see the wonderful collection of florescent minerals.

Citation: VanHorn, JE 2022. The First Woman to Earn a PhD in Geography in the United States.

[i] McManis, D. 1990. The Editorial Legacy of Gladys M. Wrigley. Geographical Review 80(2): 169-181.

[ii] Wright, J.K. 1952. Geography in the Making: The American Geographical Society 1951-1951. New York: American Geographical Society, p. 190.

[iii] Dissertations in Geography Accepted by Universities in the United States for the Degree of Ph.D. as of May, 1935, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 25(4): 211-237.

[iv] Martin, G. 1988. The Emergence and Development of Geographic Thought in New England. Economic Geography (74): 1-13.

[v] Ibid, p. 7.

[vi] Harvey is not in the list of PhDs in Geography compiled in Dissertations in Geography Accepted by Universities in the United States for the Degree of Ph.D. as of May, 1935, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 25(4): 211-237.

[vii] McManis, D. 1990, p. 170.

[viii] Wright, J.K. 1952, p. 190.

[ix] Geographical Review 1916, 1(1).

[x] McManis, D. 1990, p.170.

[xi] Wright, J.K. 1952, p. 194.

[xii] Geographical Review 1916, p. 1.

[xiii] McManis, D. 1990, pp. 171-172.

[xiv] Fairchild, W.B. 1976. Gladys Mary Wrigley 1885-1975. Geographical Review 66(3): 331-333.

[xv] Hance, W.A. 1973. Wilma Belden Fairchild. Geographical Review 63(1): 2-5.

[xvi] Fairchild, W. 1976, p. 332.

[xvii] Wright, J.K. 1952, p. 373.

[xviii] Fairchild, W.B. 1976, p 332.

[xix] Monk, J. 2003. Women’s Worlds at the American Geographical Society. Geographical Review 93(2): 237-257.

[xx] Wrigley, G.M. 1952. Adventures in Serendipity. Thirty Years of the “Geographical Review”. Geographical Review 42(4): 511-542.

[xxi] See Martin, G. 1980 The Life and Thought of Isaiah Bowman. Archon Books.

[xxii] Martin, G. 2015. Geography and Geographers. London, Oxford University Press, p. 600.

[xxiii] McManis, D. 1990, p. 179.

[xxiv] The New York Times 1975. Gladys M. Wrigley. October 16, 1975, p. 42.

[xxv] See James, P. and Martin, G. 1978. The Association of American Geographers: The First Seventy-Five Years, 1904-1979. Washington DC, Association of American Geographers.

[xxvi] See

[xxvii] See

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