Kentuckian helped draw boundaries that shaped Europe after WWI

August 4, 2014 

  • About the author: P.P. Karan is university research professor in the University of Kentucky's Department of Geography.

The July 27 Herald-Leader article, "The great war shaped our world; modern maps and tensions grew directly out of global conflict," was timely and interesting.

Readers would be interested to learn that a Kentucky geographer played a leading role in delimiting the boundaries of various countries that emerged in Eastern Europe after the war from the collapse of the German and the Austro-Hungarian empires.

Her name was Ellen Churchill Semple, a Louisville native who was on the faculty of the University of Chicago. She had done extensive field work in the Mediterranean countries during 1911-12, and was considered an authority on the tides of migration, invasion, and ethnic identities in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region.

Her special knowledge of the Mediterranean countries resulted in a call for a very special kind of service. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for the organization of a group of scholars to provide precise and detailed information about the countries of Europe that might be useful at the forthcoming peace conference.

Semple was one of the scholars appointed to this group. It was known as "The Inquiry," and its purpose was to provide the United States' delegates to the peace conference with maps and reports on which to base American policy regarding the new territorial divisions of Eastern Europe.

Isaiah Bowman, then director of the American Geographical Society (later president of Johns Hopkins University) eventually was placed in charge. One of Semple's first jobs was to formulate a statement of principles to guide the drawing of the new national boundaries.

Each new state had to be assigned a national territory that would be as viable as possible. This implied access to essential resources and to established lines of trade. Defensible boundaries also were desirable; but sometimes defensible positions did not coincide with ethnic boundaries, and compromises had to be reached.

Semple provided a statement of principles involved in drawing boundaries and then proceeded to apply these principles in eastern and southern Europe. Should a mixture of ethnic groups, speaking different languages and practicing different religions, be combined in one political unit, such as Yugoslavia?

All of this work on boundary delimitation required the close examination of detailed and accurate maps, not only of the physical features of the land but of the linguistic and religious patterns. Semple worked for The Inquiry from December 1917 to December 1918. Most of her recommendations on boundaries of countries in Eastern Europe were adopted at the peace conference. The maps and reports on which the boundaries were based are housed in the archives of the American Geographical Society.

So, here we have a prominent Kentuckian who shaped the map of post-World War I Europe. She was born in Louisville on Jan. 8, 1863, and was educated at Vassar College and the University of Leipzig in Germany. She died in 1932 and is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.

The University of Kentucky Library has some of her papers in Special Collections.

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