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James Howard Gore: Master of the Mathematics of the Earth

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

“The proper study of mankind is man—not man in his littleness, in his finiteness, but the house in which he lives, the town in which he dwells, the land he calls home, and the world over which he roams.”

—J. Howard Gore, speaking at an awards ceremony honoring three explorers: Commander Robert E. Peary, Captain Robert Bartlett, and Grove Karl Gilbert.

Gore knew plenty about roaming. He studied in London, Berlin, Leyden, and Brussels. He kept up his interests and connections in Europe, receiving various decorations and awards as well as membership in the Imperial Geographic Society of Russia, and perhaps most importantly, finding a wife, Lillian Sparrendahl, of Sweden, whom he married in 1890. His academic special was geodesy, which Webster’s 2nd edition defines as “using mathematics to determine exact positions of points and the figures and areas of large portions of the earth’s surface, and the variations of terrestrial gravity.” Gore became a master of the subject, penning many scientific and technical volumes, among them Elements of Geodesy; History of Geodesy, and Bibliography of Geodesy. While these volumes may not appeal to the lay reader, Gore did contribute articles on Holland and Romania to National Geographic magazine, and he also possessed literary connections.  His mother, whose maiden name was Sidney Cather, happened to be a great-aunt of the novelist Willa Cather and appears as the abolitionist Mrs. Bywaters in her novel, Sapphira.

Gore earned his Ph.D. in 1878 from Columbian University in Washington, D.C., which would later become known as The George Washington University, and taught mathematics there for many years. He also held the position of astronomer in the U.S. Geological Survey, led by John Wesley Powell, where he rubbed elbows with other founders of the National Geographic Society, which he served long and faithfully as a member of the Board of Trustees until his death on June 10, 1939.