Henri Francois Pittier: Geographer, natural scientist and the development of geography in Costa Rica

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David J. Robinson


Natural scientist, Geography, Costa Rica, Pittier, Henri Francois

Subject Categories



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. He left Switzerland at age 30 for Costa Rica in 1887 remaining there until 1905 before moving to the United States. In 1919 he migrated to Venezuela, where he remained until his death in 1950 at 92 years of age. During the earlier part of his life Pittier received his training in a number of disciplines, though geography was his first choice. His early publications were geographically oriented. A number of major figures like Humboldt and Darwin influenced him greatly and the major events of the time affected his choices in his personal and professional life. Upon leaving Europe, he used his experience to form a geographic institute that was responsible for scientific studies in Costa Rica. Due to an economic coffee boom and political leaders of the country who were interested in supporting intellectual pursuits, Pittier was given the freedom to practice his geographic craft, which included extensive field data collection. It was in Costa Rica where his influence as a geographer was felt most. Pittier's effectively altered the worldview of Costa Rican scientists. His dynamic, dominating approach earned him the respect of colleagues and of those who followed in his footsteps. He corresponded with scientists throughout the world. This thesis relies heavily on never before seen primary documents including correspondence written by and to Pittier over a 70 year period.


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