Published on December 4, 2012 by Mary Wimberley  

Note: The following is part of an occasional series highlighting projects supported by faculty development grants funded through the Office of the Provost.

Edward Ullman may not be a household name, but several generations of geographers can thank the late professor for identifying critical concepts now accepted as basic tenets of economic geography.

And, thanks to work by Samford University geography professor and department chair Dr. Eric J. Fournier, a portion of Ullman's trailblazing research has been chronicled so that current and future geographers can know the genesis of these concepts.

Fournier is the author of a chapter about Ullman in the book, The Role of the South in the Making of American Geography, published by the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers.

Fournier was asked to write on Ullman by the book's co-editor, University of Georgia geography professor and department head James O. Wheeler, who had been Fournier's advisor for his master's and doctoral degrees.

In the chapter, "Edward Ullman, the Port of Mobile and the Birth of Modern Economic Geography," Fournier outlines how Ullman's five months in Alabama's third largest city in 1940 lay a foundation for his later contributions to the field of economic geography.

Much of Fournier's research on his subject was done at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Ullman taught for several decades. Fournier found the university's special collections library to be a treasure trove of materials Ullman had saved, including letters he had written to his own doctoral advisor at the University of Chicago during his time in Mobile.

"White-gloved librarians would bring out boxes of materials organized by year," said Fournier, adding that Ullman, who died in 1976, seemed to have kept everything.

His time in Seattle was supported by monies from the Samford Faculty Development Grant Fund, without which, Fournier said, his research and the resulting chapter on Ullman would have been impossible. The "professory, intellectual inquiry into a unique subject nobody else had studied," said Fournier, was professionally satisfying to him and ultimately beneficial to his Samford students.

A Samford faculty member since 1997, Fournier has also used a faculty grant to support research and writing he did on waterfront revitalization in Savannah, Ga. That project was in conjunction with a 2010 meeting of the National Council for Geographic Education, which he serves as president.

Fournier acknowledges that Ullman, a Midwesterner who studied at Harvard and the University of Chicago before joining the University of Washington faculty, seems an odd subject for inclusion in a volume about the South's contribution to American geography.

However, Fournier writes, Ullman's doctoral dissertation on Mobile and his observations from the months he spent there influenced much of his later thinking and writing about cities, transportation and economic geography.

"Ullman's ways of looking at things are still used," said Fournier, who regularly cites Ullman in an upper- level globalization course he teaches at Samford. "Many basic concepts of economic geography were first described by Ullman."

"I use him as an example to talk about where ideas come from, and to say that a diagram they see in a textbook has a long history and story behind it," said Fournier, adding that he wants students to understand that a textbook is not just a compilation of "received wisdom," but is the result of a significant body of research.

For instance, Ullman's analysis of Mobile's traffic and transportation flows is considered a precursor to his later influential work on spatial interaction. "Mobile does not exist in a vacuum; it draws its support from surrounding areas," wrote Ullman.

Indeed, his transportation-related observations, including speculation on the eventual construction of the Tennessee-Tombigee Waterway, inspired much of his later studies of regional networks, railroads and highways.

In 1940, little geographic work had been done in Mobile, or in the south in general, says Fournier. This meant that much of Ullman's study was based on first-hand information that involved the gathering, compilation and analysis of data from many sources.

Ullman's studies of newspaper circulation, retail trade and wholesale trade, led to new and bold concepts related to port hinterlands and tributary areas. He used data, such as out-of-town charge accounts for the city's leading department stores and the distribution of banks with deposits in Mobile financial institutions, to compile a map that showed tributary areas for the city. The widely reproduced figure shows how different categories of goods have different trade areas.

It is speculated that Ullman's time in Mobile may have inspired his later research on amenities, such as climate, as a factor in regional growth. While he found that "the greenness of the vegetation is striking, especially if one has come from the North in winter," Ullman noted the area's high humidity as "the most unpleasant feature of an otherwise comfortable climate."

"The exhaustive field work woven together with archival data, and industrial surveys combined with his keen appreciation for emerging location theories remains a highly readable and in many ways a model study," Fournier wrote of Ullman's dissertation, which was published as a book, Mobile, Industrial Seaport and Trade Center, in 1943.

"It is clear that the southern city of Mobile provided the inspiration for some of Ullman's later work, and by consequence inspired much of the past century's innovative work in economic geography." 

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