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Warrenton, Missouri
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Warrenton, Missouri

Carl Ortwin Sauer was a well-known geographer in the United States throughout the twentieth century. He was a proponent of human intervention in the construction of landscapes, cultures, communities, history, and the environment in many parts of the world, particularly Latin America and North America’s less industrialized zones. He was a vocal opponent of environmental determinism, despite having taught the topic at one point. He concentrated on the spread of animals and plants, as well as the influence on geography, as a result of the Europeans’ conquest of North America’s original inhabitants, the Red Indians. He chastised the administration for failing to implement any policies that would allow for the sustainable use of land and its resources. He pioneered a new school of thinking in which an area’s geography is more influenced by humans than by natural forces. He used the term ‘landscape’ to describe a ‘natural landscape’ or a ‘culture landscape’ in American geography. He proposed that landscape is a feasible alternative to environmental determinism, which examines the environment’s random influence on humans, whereas the landscape approach investigates the environment’s impact on individuals. He considers geography to be more of a “culture landscape” than a “natural landscape.”

Childhood and Adolescence

Carl O. Sauer was born on December 24, 1889, in Warrenton, Missouri. His father, a German immigrant called William Albert Sauer, was a teacher at the now-defunct German Methodist institution known as ‘Central Wesleyan College,’ and his mother, Rosetta Johanna Hall, was also a German immigrant.

He had his early education in a school in Calur, Wurtemberg, Germany. He returned to the United States and enrolled at ‘Central Wesleyan College,’ where he graduated in 1908, just shy of his nineteenth birthday.
From 1909 to 1909, he studied geology at ‘Northwestern University’ in Evanston, Illinois, where he developed an interest in history.

He switched to geography and examined historical cultural activities as well as the physical terrain. Later, he enrolled in the ‘University of Chicago,’ where he studied under professors like Rollin D. Salisbury and others. In 1915, he obtained his doctorate in geography from this university.

Career of Carl O. Sauer

From 1913 to 1914, Carl Sauer taught physical sciences at the ‘State Normal School’ in Salem, Massachusetts.  In 1915, he began teaching in the newly founded department of geology and geography at the ‘University of Michigan’ in Ann Arbor, where he rose through the ranks to Assistant Professor in 1918, Associate Professor in 1920, Professor in 1920, and Chairman of the department in 1923.

He taught environmental determinism, a kind of geography that emphasizes the importance of the physical environment in the evolution of civilizations and cultures.  While researching the causes of the pine forest devastation in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, he came to the conclusion that humans influence nature, which affects the development of their civilizations, not the other way around, as he had previously assumed. It was diametrically opposed to everything he had been teaching about environmental determinism, and he spent the remainder of his life railing against the issue.

He became a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Geography at the ‘University of California, Berkeley’ in 1923. He founded the ‘Berkeley School of Geographic Thought,’ which linked a region’s topography to its scenery, history, and culture. From 1923 until 1954, he was the President of the United States.

He also played a key role in bringing the university’s geography, anthropology, and history departments together.
In 1925, while working at the University of California, Berkeley, he published his most famous paper, ‘The Morphology of Landscape,’ which challenged the idea of environmental determinism and emphasized the fact that people and natural processes were responsible for changes in the landscape and geography of a given area.

Sauer began his lifelong interest in the historical geography and civilizations of Latin America when he examined the scenery of Mexico in the 1920s. He studied the link between soil, climate, and landscape with the ‘National Land Use Committee’ in the 1930s. He worked on soil erosion alongside one of his PhD students, Charles Warren Thornthwaite, at the ‘Soil Erosion Service.’

In 1938, he released a series of writings on economic and environmental concerns in which he criticized the government for failing to implement long-term economic and agricultural reform. With his contribution in the formulation of the ‘Michigan Land Economic Survey,’ he gained national notoriety. He was instrumental in the formation of the ‘US Soil Conservation Program’ and the development of the United States’ land-use mapping service.

During the 1930s, he worked as a consultant for the ‘President’s Science Advisory Board.’ He got interested in biogeography in the 1930s and published several publications on animal and plant domestication. At 1955, he convened an international conference in Pricenton, New Jersey called “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth,” which focused on the influence people have on species, water, landscape, and atmosphere.

He was also a member of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s selection committee, where he managed the distribution of American scholarships. In 1940, he was elected President of the Association of American Geographers, and in 1955, he was made an honorary president.  In 1957, he withdrew from active teaching but continued his study. From 1957 until his death, he was a ‘Professor Emeritus.’

Major Projects of Carl O. Sauer

Carl O. Sauer’s ‘The Morphology of Landscape,’ published in 1925, was a landmark book in which he developed the notion of ‘landscape’ in geography. In 1932, he released ‘The Road to Cibola. Berkeley and Los Angeles,’ and in 1935, he published ‘Aboriginal Population of Northwestern Mexico.’ In 1938, he released ‘Destructive Exploitation in Modern Colonial Expansion,’ and in 1952, he published ‘Agricultural Origins and Dispersals,’ a book about the domestication of plants and animals.

Achievements & Awards

The ‘American Geographical Society’ awarded Carl O. Sauer the ‘Charles P. Daly Medal’ in 1940. In 1957, he was awarded the ‘Vega Medal’ by the ‘Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography.’ In 1975, he was awarded the ‘Victoria Medal’ by the Royal Geographical Society. He was also awarded a medal by the ‘Berlin Geographical Society.’

Sauer was awarded honorary doctorates from the ‘Syracruse University,’ the ‘Heidelberg University,’ and the ‘University of California,’ among others. In 1935, he was awarded a ‘Honorary Fellowship’ by the ‘American Geographical Society.’  During his time at the ‘University of California, Berkeley,’ he mentored around fifty doctorate candidates.

Personal History and Legacy

He married Laura Lorena Schowengerdt and the couple had a son called Jonathan and a daughter named Elizabeth.
Carl O. Sauer died on July 18, 1975, in Berkeley, California, at the age of 85.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Carl O. Sauer is not available.