William Bowie (1872–1940)

bowieWilliam Bowie was born in 1872 near Annapolis, Maryland, and attended Saint John’s College in Annapolis before graduating from Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut) with a B.S. in 1893. He was interested in pursuing engineering studies and subsequently attended Lehigh University from which he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1895. Immediately thereafter he joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he spent his entire career. Initially, he was engaged in field work involving geodetic, topographic, and hydrographic measurements in the continental United States, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. His performance was so outstanding that in 1909 he succeeded John Hayford as chief of the Division of Geodesy. He held this position until his retirement in 1936. During World War I he served as a major in the U.S. Army in the Mapping Division of the Office of the Corps of Engineers. His postwar activities included the establishment of triangulation networks using the “Bowie method,” and the North American Datum of 1927. He was also instrumental in the adoption of the Hayford geoid by the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) in 1924. His other activities include urging the preparation of more and better maps and coordination between various map-making agencies of the federal government. Hayford had introduced isostasy into U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey work; Bowie added gravity data into the determination of the geoid and made isostasy his own specialty. His book Isostasy, published in 1927, became a classic and made him an expert on and a champion of the subject. Bowie’s leadership was instrumental in making the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey one of the world’s leading geodetic institutions. His achievements were recognized by his membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, and various academies in Norway, Mexico, Russia, and Finland. He was the recipient of honorary degrees from Trinity College, Lehigh University, George Washington University, and Edinburgh University.

Bowie was one of the organizers and original members of AGU, and he served as its first President (1919–1922). He served a second term as President (1929–1933) and has been the only person to hold this position twice. In l939, the eighth AGU President, Richard Field (1938–1941), conceived the idea of an AGU medal to honor Bowie, and with private donations and the cooperation of Trinity College, the William Bowie Medal was created. It was AGU’s first medal, and naturally, Bowie was its first recipient in April l939. It is AGU’s most prestigious award and is awarded annually for outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and unselfish cooperation in research.

On the international stage, Bowie was active in the International Geodetic Association following World War I and was a leading figure in the creation of IUGG. He served as its President from 1933 to 1936, the first American to have this honor, and was President of the International Association of Geodesy from 1920 to 1933.

Bowie was not only a scientist of great distinction, but he was also a skilled scientific diplomat and organizer. His dignified bearing, geniality, and commanding presence enabled him to resolve many national and international difficulties of both political and scientific nature. He was always “ready and willing to serve,” and his presence was crucial in the successful establishment and founding of AGU and IUGG in the years before World War II. His legacy of achievement and cooperation is lasting and does honor to both him and his country.

—Joseph D. Zund

New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico