Nevin M. Fenneman

1865 to 1945

Nevin M. Fenneman was a geologist and geographer whose principal contributions to Illinois geology were the introduction of the concept of physiographic divisions and a visual means to represent them.

Fenneman was a gifted student who, at the age of 17, graduated with a B.A. from Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Not yet old enough to vote, he began his professional career as a schoolteacher. In 1892, Fenneman accepted the professorship of physical sciences at Colorado State Normal School at Greeley, Colorado. He met his future wife there, and, in 1893, they were married on his birthday, December 26. He went back to college to get an M.A. at Heidelberg College in 1900 and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1901. In 1907, Fenneman accepted the newly created chair of Geology and Geography at the University of Cincinnati. In the course of 20 years, he built the department into one that ranked high among colleges of similar size.

In 1906, Fenneman mapped the St. Louis Quadrangle for the U.S. Geological Survey and the newly formed Illinois State Geological Survey. In 1907, he published his stratigraphic work on the East St. Louis region in an Illinois State Geological Survey bulletin. In 1909–1910, he published Physiography of the St. Louis Area. At the 1913 American Association of Geographers meeting, seeing the need to subdivide the United States based on common properties of topography and physiography, Fenneman presented his case for physiographic subdivisions and their dual use "for the discussion and explanation of social, industrial, historical, and other data of distinctly human concern." At the 1914 meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Chicago, a committee was formed to prepare a map of the physiographic divisions of the United States. Fenneman was appointed the chair of that committee. The map was accepted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1916 and was published as plate 1 of Fenneman's paper Physiographic Divisions of the United States. In 1931, he went on to publish Physiography of the Western United States. In 1938, he published Physiography of the Eastern United States and was awarded the gold medal at the Geographical Society of Chicago.

His physiographic maps of the region were notable milestones in the development of the physiographic subdivisions later detailed specifically for Illinois in Morris M. Leighton, George E. Ekblaw, and C. Leland Horberg's 1948 publication Physiographic Divisions of Illinois. Although Fenneman's hand-drawn physiographic maps were improved over time by others and eventually superseded by more-striking three-dimensional computer simulations of shaded relief maps, the challenge and interest in visually depicting Illinois' physiography originally began with Fenneman's magnificent efforts.

Honored by: 
James A. Bier
Citation Contributed by: 
Curtis C. Abert