Role of Geographer and Natural Scientist Henri François Pittier (1857-1950) in the Evolution of Geography as a Science in Costa Rica

Author: Yacher, Leon I.
Swiss born Henri François Pittier played a central role in the evolution of geography as a science in Costa Rica. By the end of his life, Pittier had published over 300 papers, several monographs and books in various languages in three continents on a wide variety of subjects including geography, botany, forestry, archeology, ethnography, linguistics, geology, and climatology.

Pittier has been overlooked as a geographer. This work traces the development of Pittier as a man and scholar, and it evaluates his role and impact in the development of geography in Costa Rica. It assesses Pittier’s place in the history of geography in Costa Rica and Latin America, a research topic largely neglected. This work relies heavily on primary documents never seen before, including correspondence written by and to Pittier over a 70 year period.


"The book may well be the only major study--certainly, one of the few--in English of a dominant figure in the development of the discipline in Latin America ... recommended." - CHOICE

“Dr. Yacher’s study opens a window into a relatively unknown phase of Latin American scientific development when a bevy of European natural scientists not only visited Latin America to observe, collect, and publish descriptions of these tropically exotic places, but also settled down to become pioneers in the development of a variety of disciplines—in this case geography, and the remarkable man involved: Henri François Pittier.

Swiss by origin, this multifaceted, polyglot moved to Costa Rica at age 30 in 1887, to a country undergoing rapid modernization, a country that welcomed foreign scientists no less than laborers for its emerging plantation agriculture. Pittier plunged into his new environs “con gusto”, rapidly becoming involved in field research first collecting plants and insects, then involved in government commissions. His natural scientific interests developed to include the study of social problems—transportation routes, alcoholism, native languages-- and, in 1889, the icon of his efforts: establishing the Physical Geographic Institute, and soon afterwards a herbarium. Costa Rica was ever more firmly put on the map by Pittier’s voluminous correspondence with key scientists back in Europe and the USA. Boxes of plants traversed the oceans to foreign herbaria, bearing witness to Pittier’s diligent research, notwithstanding the continuous pain he suffered in a permanently damaged leg….His death in 1950, at the ripe old age of 92, marked the end of a remarkable career; but by then geography had become much more refined and restricted as a discipline. European and United States specialists had professionalized the discipline, and Pittier must have sensed the demise of the natural science that he had practiced for so long. However, he would no doubt be delighted to know that his impact on the study of Costa Rica and Venezuela has been memorialized in named parks, rivers, prizes, and postage stamps. Few geographers can make such claims.” - Dr. David J. Robinson,Syracuse University

“It has been argued that without a history of its own a discipline can not be considered legitimate. Understanding specific historical episodes that affected a discipline is not only gained through the identification of various incidents that took place over time, but also the players that influenced those events, paradigms, and teachings, which characterized the discipline. In the case of the history of geography, the literature is rich, but its principal concentration on Anglo America and Europe has left other parts of the world sorely lacking; this is especially the case with regard to Latin America. Professor Yacher has begun filling that need, first with his work on the Italian-Peruvian geographer Antonio Raimondi, and now with this complete study on the contributions of Swiss-born Costa Rican Henri Pittier, both relative unknowns in the United States, but essentially luminaries in Peru and Costa Rica, respectively.

Studying the role that individuals played in the development of a discipline is not an unreasonable quest, and with the addition of studies about lesser known individuals, the members of any discipline would benefit as a whole and gain a better understanding of its history and thought. Thus, the work on Pittier is imperative. Not specifically biographical, but more an attempt to investigate the various contributions that Henri Pittier made to the introduction and growth of geography as a science in Costa Rica, Yacher’s study does much to contribute to the literature related to the development of geography in Latin America.

No forthcoming effort is being attempted by Latin American geographers to conduct a comprehensive study of the history of geography in Costa Rica (or of Latin America, or of other specific countries within the region); it is simply not possible at this time because the preliminary work essential for such a task has yet to be done. Moreover, no major works on the history of the discipline in Latin America have been written until now, which are necessary for a better understanding of geography as a discipline as a whole. As a Latin American born Latin Americanist American geographer, Yacher has been able to overcome the funding difficulties faced by Latin American geographers and the cultural barriers faced by Americans and Europeans devoted to the history of geographic thought. Leon Yacher has gained access to archives on three continents heretofore left unexamined by historians of the geographic discipline to complete this work, an essential first stage toward a much needed comprehensive study of the history of geography in Latin America.” – M.S. DeVivo, Grand Rapids Community College

Table of Contents

List of Tables
List of Figures
1. Pittier’s Early Life and Work
2. Formative Years: Pittier in Costa Rica, 1887 to 1889
3. The Years of Consolidation, 1890 to 1897
4. Costa Rica: The Last Years of Pittier and Geography after his Departure
5. Pittier after Costa Rica: Conservationist, Botanist, Correspondent
6. Conclusions and Reflections