East, Edward M. (Edward Murray), 1879-1938

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1879-10-04
Death 1938-11-09

Biographical notes:

Epithet: plant geneticist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000752.0x00034e

Epithet: American biologist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000208.0x00000c

Oliver Edwin Baker (1883-1949) was an agricultural geographer and population expert and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was an authority on agricultural land utilization and advocate of “rurban” living, a combination of urban employment, suburban living, and part-time farming.

Baker was born in 1883 in Tifflin, Ohio, to Edwin Baker, a merchant, and his wife Martha Ranney Thomas. As a boy Baker was taught by his mother, a former school teacher, and then in public school. He graduated at age nineteen from Heidelberg College in Tifflin with a major in history and mathematics. The following year he received his master’s degree in philosophy and sociology from Heidelberg. He then enrolled at Columbia University, where he was granted a master’s in political science. He subsequently studied forestry at Yale (1907-1908) and agriculture at the University of Wisconsin (1908-1912). During his time at Wisconsin he co-authored an essay on the climate of Wisconsin and its effects on agriculture, and he spent his summers with the Wisconsin Soil Survey. In 1912 Baker joined the United States Department of Agriculture. Five years later he co-authored the Geography of the World’s Agriculture . The positive reception of this volume motivated Baker to produce an Atlas of American Agriculture, which was published in six parts between 1918 and 1936. Baker subsequently returned to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics in 1921 with a dissertation on land utilization. His research interests in the economics of agriculture stemmed in part from the influence of two of his professors at Wisconsin, Henry C. Taylor (1873-1969) and Richard T. Ely (1854-1943).

In 1922 Baker accepted Taylor’s invitation to join the Department of Agriculture’s new Bureau of Agricultural Economics. There he undertook a number of research projects, including many that involved the delineating and mapping of agricultural regions. His “Agricultural Regions of North America” was published in several parts between 1926 and 1933 in Economic Geography, for which he also served as associate editor for several years. He evidently often amazed his students by citing statistics on any of the 300 counties in the United States. Among his other publications during this period was an essay on agriculture in China that appeared in Foreign Affairs (1928). Baker was vice president of the Association of American Geographers in 1824 and president in 1932. During this period he was involved in the Association’s long-term program to investigate the “the margin of the cultivable earth,” so-called pioneer belts. In the late 1920s he also belonged to a National Research Council’s committee charged with the study of pioneer belts. From 1923 to 1927 Baker taught part-time in the newly established geography department at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

By the 1930s Baker became increasingly interested in questions related to population studies, including rural-urban migration, population quality, and living conditions on farms. Baker’s research in population problems stemmed from his interest in what he saw as the most valuable farm product, outstanding citizens. He encouraged and participated in several surveys of rural youth, and, based on his recognition that many rural people live in unsatisfactory conditions, he devoted much energy to improving their circumstances. For example, he attempted to the future of farming by studying past agricultural trends, offered specific suggestions designed to improve farming practices, and he tried to increase popular awareness of the contributions of farm families to the nation’s welfare. He essentially saw the nation as a complex of agricultural regions, and while some geographers regarded his agrarianism as reactionary, others recognized his contributions especially in the mapping of these regions. In 1937 the University of Göttingen awarded him an honorary degree.

Baker was deeply concerned about the declining U.S. birthrate, especially among urban people, which he predicted would have devastating consequences for the entire nation. He was a strong advocate of a “rurban” lifestyle that would combine urban employment with suburban living and part-time farming. This, he believed, would help preserve the rural values he so admired, including the “family ideal,” “the worth of the human soul, patriotism, the dignity of labor, the necessity of sacrifice, and the widespread distribution in the ownership of property,” as he explained in his essay “Some Implications of Population Trends to the Christian Church” (1942). Baker also believed that a “rurban” society would help improve land-use practices and increase the birthrate. He called for farm ownership over many generations, with one dwelling reserved for the older couple and one for the younger. Baker and his wife Alice Hargrave Crew, whom he married in 1925, practiced what he preached. The couple raised four children on a suburban property where they grew a garden and raised cows and chickens. Baker eventually bought a farm in Virginia with the intention of leaving it to his son.

In 1942 Baker joined the faculty of the University of Maryland. At that time, the university offered no courses in geography. Over the next seven years, Baker established what became one of the foremost geography departments in the country. He retired as chairman in 1949 in order to focus on his research, especially in connection to the Atlas of World Resources and the China Atlas . He died later that year in his home in College Park, Maryland.

From the guide to the Oliver Edwin Baker papers, 1913-1949, 1913-1949, (American Philosophical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Geography--United States--Societies, etc
  • Agriculture--Atlases
  • Economic geography
  • Agriculture--Research

Occupations:

  • Geographers

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