Obituary: Professor Jean Gottmann
Saturday 05 March 1994
THE PRESENT Secretary of State for Education, in a Festschrift he edited to mark the retirement of Jean Gottmann from the Chair of Geography at Oxford, described him as 'one of the Olympian figures of modern geography'. In this his judgement was perfect, for Gottmann had a long-continued and global influence on a large part of human geography.
Gottmann was an international figure both by breeding and influence. He was born in Kharkov (a Ukrainian town) of Jewish parents (both of whom were killed in 1917), became an emigre in Paris, fled the Nazis to the United States during the Second World War, and came to Oxford in 1968. He practised his geography in a range of prestigious institutions: the Sorbonne, the Institute for Advance Study at Princeton, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, CNRS in Paris, the University of Paris, and Oxford University. He was awarded international honours including Honorary Membership of the American Geographical Society, the Royal Netherlands Geographical Society, the Societe Geographique de Liege and the Societa Geografica Italiana. He had honorary degrees from Wisconsin, South Illinois and Liverpool and honorary citizenship of Yokohama and Guadalajara. In 1974 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. He was a regular visitor to Israel, where he had a large circle of friends, various research interests, and was a Governor of the University of Haifa. His distinction was also rewarded in Britain where he was one of a relatively few practitioners of the discipline to be awarded a Fellowship of the British Academy. He was also a Vice-President of the Royal Geographical Society and a holder of its Victoria Medal.
Gottmann's geography was broad and imaginative in scope and from the time he produced (rather precociously) his first paper in 1933 until his death, he was a highly productive and much-cited writer. His master-work, Megalopolis, a study of the urbanised seaboard of the eastern United States published in 1961, is often regarded as his greatest monument, but the scope of his work was much greater than this alone. At different times he wrote on topics as diverse as irrigation in Palestine, the political and economic geography of Europe, urban and regional pIanning, the geography of the United States, the origin of laterite, and information flows in and between cities.
He held the Chair of Geography in Oxford from 1968 to 1983 and this proved to be a time of great change both in the School and in the discipline. He recognised that if Oxford Geography were to adapt to changing circumstances and to live up to its early promise it would need a substantial injection of outside blood. He managed to get the university to provide him with some demonstratorships so that he could appoint young staff and he also had a tendency (not always without resistance) to appoint staff whose origins lay outside Oxford. During the 1970s these actions bore fruit: navel inspection became less prevalent, and the ethos of the School was transformed.
Gottmann was also a Fellow of Hertford College and in the autumn of 1993 was made an Honorary Fellow, something that the college seldom does. Attendance at Governing Body, with its frequent concern with routine tutorial matters and often trivial domestic arrangements, must at times have struck him as a bizarre Oxford fetish, but he attended with exemplary regularity and his wise counsel was often sought and received. He and his wife, Bernice, added distinction and cultured conversation to high table and they introduced an array of distinguished visitors to college. In an environment of sports jackets and leather patches he contributed sartorial style. Regular attendance at the Gilbert Club, the college's boisterous but much-emulated dining club, gave him contact with undergraduates to whom he might otherwise have been a formal and distant figure. Sportingly, he was never hit by their errant food.
Gottmann's upbringing in the emigre community of Paris gave him a wide intellectual base which while doubtless helping his geography, also gave him a wealth of interests beyond the discipline and some of which he was able to follow at the Maison Francaise in Oxford. He had training in law and history in addition to a training in geography, and during and after the Second World War he was involved with political work for bodies like the US Board of Economic Warfare, for Pierre Mendes-France at the Ministre de L'Economie Nationale, and at the United Nations.
His array of distinctions and his relentless schedule of international travel were achieved against a background of cruel ill-health which dogged him for most of his life. Movement was often a trial and pain was often there. He looked frail and prematurely old, but the sharp and twinkling eyes hinted at the determination, enthusiasm and courage that drove him on. Remarkably he travelled to Japan only weeks before his death. That he was able to do so is a tribute to his wife who, from the time they married in 1957, was a constant source of encouragement and physical and intellectual support.
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