A History of the Department of Geography at The University of Leicester

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The history of the geography department can be set amidst the history of the University of Leicester from its founding as a University College in 1921 to its transition to full University status in 1954 and its subsequent enlargement and development. The history of the geography department also needs to be seen against the background of the changes taking place in academic geography, as the subject moved from largely descriptive to essentially analytical, and grew in popularity and status.

It has been argued that, of all the academic subjects, the one most changed by the transition to a computerised world has been geography. The map has moved from paper to screen and the consequences are enormous.

Professors P.W.Bryan and N.Pye were, between them, heads of department for the first 55 years of the department’s existence. Bryan was the first full time lecturer to be appointed- in 1922. Until then the geography teaching had been managed single handedly by Gladys Sarson, who was the University’s first geographer- on a part-time basis. Bryan stayed on for 30 years, getting a PhD en route and eventually becoming a professor. He handed over to Norman Pye in 1956 and Pye was in charge until 1968. During the Bryan period the University College became a fully-fledged University and the Geography Department gave birth to the departments of geology, economics and local history- which now thrive as independent units. In 1926 3 students graduated in geography, in 1956 it was 67.

Laboratory Exercise

The modern history of the department might be dated from Professor Pye’s retirement. The ‘quantitative’ revolution arrived in academic geography and the vision of the subject started to change. It certainly became more popular and the number of students rose steadily. Then another revolution arrived as computers took over many functions in society. An education in geography now carries with it an education in computer use, and the world vision of a computer map is now universal.

Some notable scholars are associated with Leicester geography- a random few are:

  • W.B.Whalley:ground materials in a glacial setting; Russell King: agricultural geography; E.Derbyshire: loess and landslides in China;

Practical Exercise

  • D.Turnock: Eastern Europe in particular Romania; Peter S.Richards: ecclesiastical geography and archive studies;
  • D.I Benn: glacial landscapes.

There is currently both a high level and breadth of geographical activity in the department.Major interests of the physical geography team are  Quaternary environmental reconstruction; water, sediments and nutrients in catchments; ecosystem-climate interactions.  The focus of the human geography group is on geographies of emotions and feelings; environmental geographies; geographies of communities and the everyday, while the Geographical Information Science group research encompasses earth observation; applied geocomputation; spatial literacy and digital geographies.

Ian Smalley
Department of Geography
University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

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School of Geography, Geology and the Environment
Bennett Building
University Road
University of Leicester

T: 0116 252 3933

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