October 28 marks the birth date of Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the editor credited with transforming National Geographic Magazine External from a small scholarly journal into a dynamic world-renowned monthly. Born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1875, Grosvenor’s family immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen, where he became an honor student, eventually studying at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Grosvenor joined the magazine in 1899 as an assistant editor.
Gilbert Grosvenor was recommended for the position by a friend of his father’s, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was at the time, president of the National Geographic Society. Bell became his father-in-law shortly thereafter when, in 1900, Grosvenor wed Bell’s daughter, Elsie May. Four years after joining National Geographic, Grosvenor took over as editor-in-chief and in 1920, he was elected president of the the society. Grosvenor filled the dual roles of editor of the magazine and president of the society until 1954, when he resigned to become chairman of the board, a position he held until his death in 1966.
The National Geographic Society was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1888 to support “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” The society’s founders, an eclectic group of well-traveled men, considered a magazine one means of accomplishing this mission. They published the first National Geographic nine months after forming the organization.
In its early years, National Geographic was a journal with a plain cover and a circulation of less than one thousand. Under Grosvenor’s leadership, the magazine developed its extraordinary photographic service and map department, ultimately boosting membership from 900 in 1899 to more than 2 million at the time of his retirement in 1955.
During Grosvenor’s tenure, using revenues from the magazine, the society sponsored many notable expeditions and research projects including Admiral Robert Peary‘s 1909 expedition to the North Pole; Hiram Bingham’s 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu, and William Beebe’s record-setting undersea descent in 1934. The National Geographic Society continues this tradition, and has sponsored more than 8,000 research projects and more than 500 expeditions around the globe. Richly illustrated within the magazine, these explorations of land, air, and sea have introduced millions of people to amazing new worlds.
Today, the National Geographic Society External is the largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization of its kind. In addition to publishing its flagship magazine, the society produces a wide array of educational materials and programs. The subject of many of these is the conservation and protection of wildlife, causes long championed by Gilbert H. Grosvenor.
- Search on Grosvenor in the Daguerreotypes collection to retrieve ten daguerreotypes of the Bell family, part of the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection of Photographs of the Alexander Graham Bell Family. Included are images of Alexander Graham Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard, and his grandfather, Alexander Bell.
- The family tree of Gilbert Grosvenor and Elsie May Bell and photographs of the Grosvenors and their children are among several Bell family trees and numerous photographs found in the collection, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. Don’t miss the photograph of Bell flying a kite with his grandson, Melville Grosvenor.
- For more information about Grosvenor’s father-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, see the Today in History features on Bell’s telephone and photophone inventions.
- An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera includes a flyer for an 1892 lecture held at the National Geographic Society by Mrs. French-Sheldon, “the first white woman who has ever visited Mount Kilma-njaro in Central Africa.”
- Search Today in History on conservation to find features on subjects including:
- Learn more about the movement to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage. Visit The Evolution of the Conservation Movement: 1850-1920.