The Times/1927/Obituary/John Scott Keltie
Sir John Keltie.
A Pioneer of Modern Geography
We record with much regret that Sir John Keltie, the pioneer in this country of the scientific study of geography and an old and valued contributor to The Times, died yesterday of bronchitis at the age of 86.
John Scott Keltie was born at Dundee on March 29, 1840. His father's family had been settled for generation on their own lands in Perthshire, but, having suffered losses, were unable to save him from a struggle for existence in early life which braced and strengthened his character—a destiny shared by Mungo Park, Livingstone, and many other Scotsmen of geographical fame. At the age of 19 he went to the Universtiy of St. Andrews, which later made him LL.D., and thence to that of Edinburgh to study for the ministry. Throughout his university career he supported himself entirely—at first by teaching, and afterwards by employment on the earliest edition of Chamber's Encyclopædia and by work on the Ediburgh Evening Courant. Theological difficulties prevented him from being ordained in the Scottish Church, but not from preachign a number of sermons to oblige friends.
In 1865 he married a daughter of Captain John Scott, of Kirkwall. During the following six years he carried on active journalistic work, besides re-writing James Browne's "History of the Scottish Highlands" and bringing out an edition of Defoe's works and a "History of the Drama," with selections from the Elizabethan dramatists. In 1871 he joined Messrs. Macmillan's editorial staff in London, where for some 15 years he was sub-editor of Nature, under Norman Lockyer, and frequently a quarter of that weekly publication was contributed by himself—for his scientific studies were deeply catholic.
His connexion with The Times began in 1875, through his having in his possession unpublished information about the island of Socotra, which Great Britain had just annexed. For many years his intimate knowledge of African questions enabled him to give to the world, through The Times, a stream of valuable articles on the "Scramble of Africa." But that was by no means the only service he rendered to this journal, which till comparatively recent years benefited continuously by his sagacious counsel as well as by his contributions on every branch of geographical science. He also contributed largely on African questions to English and American magazines, and in 1893 he published "The Partition of Africa." This work still remains, in its revised edition, the best text-book of that exploration and division of a forgotten continent which filled so prominent a place in the history of the last quarter of the 19th century.
A new phase in his career opened in 1884, when the Royal Geographical Society, which had long made fruitless efforts to secure the recognition of geography as a regular branch of education in this country, appointed Keltie Inspector of Geographical Education, and instructed him to make a searching inquiry into the whole subject of geographical teaching all over the world. His comprehensive report, the result in large part of personal investigation in many European counties and the United States, was the basis of that continuous action on the part of the society which has produced such valuable results. Geography, no longer despised among us, has now a sure footing in the schools at Oxford and Cambridge, where the diplomas are coveted,a nd the subject has a place in the degree examinations. Even the Colonial Office now requires from its officials in remote regions a knowledge of map-making. There are lectures in nearly all the English and Scottish universities. In the elementary schools the subject has made vast process from the repellent and useless geography taught some 40 years ago, while it is now a recognized place in many of the secondary schools. Text-books, maps and appliances of all kinds have been improved, and practical work in the field is common in many schools. In this movement Keltie played a constant and prominent part, as also in the gradual introduction into this country from Germany of the modern conception of geography, which no longer confined to an arid knowledge of the position of towns, rivers, and capes, has become a science dealing with the earth's surgace as the physical basis of all human activity. In "Applied Geography," first published in 1890, he dealt usefully with this subject of anthropo-geography, which he had urged and expounded in magazine articles for many previous years.
In 1885 Keltie was made librarian to the Royal Geographic Society, and, on the death of Mr. Bates in 1892, he succeeded to the secretaryship, a position for which he was exceptionally well qualified, and which filled the long period of 23 years with valuable and congenial labours. To his scientific attainments he added a very necessary business capacity and knowledge of men and affairs, for his position placed him in frequent contact with public men, scientists, politicians, and literary men, as well as with great explorers and travellers of all nations. Perhaps his best printed record is found in the Geographical Journal, which was started under his editorship in 1893, and which was soon recognized in all counties as the leading geographical organ in the world.
In 1915, having reached his 75th year, Keltie resigned the secretaryship of the Royal Geographical Society, but for another two years he continued to act as joint-editor of the Geographical Journal. His retirement was made the occasion of many testimonies to the services to science. His own society bestowed on him the Victoria Medal and gold medals were presented by the American, Paris, and Scottish Geographical Societies, while his name appeared in the list of knights in the New Year honours of 1918—a tardy recognition by the Government of the value of his work to the nation. He had been for years a command of the Order of the North Star (Sweden) and of the Order of St. Olaf (Norway). The Finnish Order of the White Rose was added in 1921.
Though freed from his secretarial duties, Sir John Keltie did not go into retirement, He was at once elected to the Council of R.G.S., and in 1921 became a vice-president. He was a regular and valued attendant at the meetings of the council, and took almost as keen an interest in the Mount Everest Expedition as he always maintained in African questions and in Polar exploration—to which last subject his latest contributions to The Times were devoted. His 80th year still found him active and still editing the "Stateman's Yearbook," a task he had first undertaken 40 years before.
Keltie was honorary corresponding member of most of the Geographical societies of the world. He was editior of the Geographical and Statistical Sections of the tenth edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," organizer of the International Congress in London in 1895, and president of the geographical Section of the British Association in 1897. He was rather below the average height, trim in figure, neat in his dress, and somewhat precise in manner and speech. His favourite game was golf. Keltie's many attached friendships were due as much to his genial sympathy, his unfailing courtesy, and generous appreciation of the work of others as to his own attainments. Lady Keltie died in December 1922, from shock caused by accidental burns. He leaves one daughter, Mrs. Gilmour.