Biography of Carl O. Sauer

A Biography of Geographer Carl O. Sauer

Carl Ortwin Sauer
Ruben c/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Carl Ortwin Sauer was born on December 24, 1889 in Warrenton, Missouri. His grandfather was a traveling minister and his father taught at Central Wesleyan College, a German Methodist college that has since been closed. During his youth, Carl Sauer's parents sent him to school in Germany but he later returned to the United States to attend Central Wesleyan College. He graduated from there in 1908, shortly before his nineteenth birthday.

From there, Carl Sauer began attending Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. While at Northwestern, Sauer studied geology and developed an interest in the past. Sauer’s then shifted to the broader subject of geography. Within this discipline, he was primarily interested in the physical landscape, human cultural activities, and the past. He then transferred to the University of Chicago where he studied under Rollin D. Salisbury, among others, and earned his Ph.D. in geography in 1915. His dissertation focused on the Ozark Highlands in Missouri and included information ranging from the area's people to its landscape.

Carl Sauer at the University of Michigan

Following his graduation from the University of Chicago, Carl Sauer began teaching geography at the University of Michigan where he remained until 1923. In his early days at the university, he studied and taught environmental determinism- an aspect of geography that said the physical environment was solely responsible for the development of various cultures and societies.

This was the popularly held viewpoint in geography at the time and Sauer learned about it extensively at the University of Chicago.

After studying the destruction of pine forests on Michigan's Lower Peninsula while teaching at the University of Michigan though, Sauer's opinions on environmental determinism changed and he became convinced that humans control nature and develop their cultures out of that control, not the other way around.

He then became a fierce critic of environmental determinism and carried these ideas throughout his career.

During his graduate studies in geology and geography, Sauer also learned the importance of field observation. He then made this an important aspect of his teaching at the University of Michigan and during his later years there, he did field mapping of the physical landscape and land uses in Michigan and surrounding areas. He also published extensively on the area’s soils, vegetation, land use, and the quality of the land.

The University of California, Berkeley

Throughout the early 1900s, geography in the United States was mainly studied on the East Coast and Mid-west. In 1923, however, Carl Sauer left the University of Michigan when he accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he served as the department chair and advanced his ideas of what geography should be. It was also here that he became famous for developing the "Berkeley School" of geographic thought which focused on regional geography organized around culture, landscapes, and history.

This area of study was important for Sauer because it further enhanced his opposition to environmental determinism in that it placed an emphasis on how humans interact with and change their physical environment.

In addition, he brought up the importance of history when studying geography and he aligned U.C. Berkeley's geography department with its history and anthropology departments.

In addition to the Berkeley School, Sauer's most famous work to come out of his time at U.C. Berkeley was his paper, "The Morphology of Landscape" in 1925. Like much of his other work, it challenged environmental determinism and made clear his stance that geography should be the study of how present landscapes were shaped over time by people and natural processes.

Also in the 1920s, Sauer began applying his ideas to Mexico and this began his lifelong interest in Latin America. He also published Ibero-Americana with several other academics. During much of the rest of his life, he studied the area and its culture and published widely on the Native Americans in Latin America, their culture, and their historical geography.

In the 1930s, Sauer worked on the National Land Use Committee and began studying the relationships between climate, soil, and slope with one of his graduate students, Charles Warren Thornthwaite, in an effort to detect soil erosion for the Soil Erosion Service. Soon after though, Sauer became critical of the government and its failure to create sustainable agriculture and economic reform and in 1938, he wrote a series of essays focused on environmental and economic issues.

Additionally, Sauer also became interested in biogeography in the 1930s and wrote articles focusing plant and animal domestication.

Finally, Sauer organized the international conference, "Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth," at Princeton, New Jersey in 1955 and contributed to a book of the same title. In it, he explained the ways humans have impacted the Earth's landscape, organisms, water, and atmosphere.

Carl Sauer retired shortly thereafter in 1957.

Post-U.C. Berkeley

After his retirement, Sauer continued his writing and research and wrote four novels focused on early European contact with North America.

Sauer died in Berkeley, California on July 18, 1975 at the age of 85.

Carl Sauer's Legacy

During his 30 years at U.C. Berkeley, Carl Sauer oversaw the work of many graduate students who became leaders in the field and worked to spread his ideas throughout the discipline. More importantly, Sauer was able to make geography prominent on the West Coast and initiate new ways of studying it. The Berkeley School's approach differed significantly from the traditional physical and spatially oriented approaches and though it is not actively studied today, it provided the foundation for cultural geography, cementing Sauer's name in geographic history.