Professor Emeritus Wilbur Zelinsky

Monday, May 6, 2013 - 1:04pm

Editor's Note

Dear Geography Community,
It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of Wilbur Zelinsky, professor emeritus, long-time faculty member in the Department of Geography, and renowned scholar. Wilbur passed peacefully at home, surrounded by his family, after a short illness.


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Remembered as warm, funny, and always curious: Zelinsky's legacy of indefatigable scholarship continues to inspire.

by Michelle Lenze

Wilbur Zelinsky was a professor of geography at Penn State for fifty years. He served as the department head from 1970-1976, and became a professor emeritus in 1987.

Wilbur Zelinsky


Zelinsky was a highly regarded, influential figure in his field, known for his book: The Cultural Geography of the United States.  He was an active member of the department and professional societies until his death in May 2013. Details about his education, awards, memberships, professional service, previous appointments, and advisees can be found below. His publications are on the Zelinsky publications page.

The late E. Willard Miller, former professor of geography and founder of the department at Penn State, published the following about Zelinsky in his 1992 book, The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State:

Wilbur Zelinsky, coming to Penn State in 1963 as a “Red Star” professor, has spent his time thinking about, teaching, and carrying out research on the cultural, social, and population geography of North America. He says: “It has been exciting to be a member of the trailblazing generation to begin exploring the many unexplored facets of our continent’s human geography, including such topics as the spatial aspects of religion, town morphology, house types, popular regions, free and slave Black populations, rural depopulation and repopulation, memberships in voluntary organizations, place names, and personal names.” His 1973 book The Cultural Geography of the United States has become one of the classic studies in the discipline. In the demographic community he is best known for his 1970 study The Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition. A second major interest of his has been the ethical, social, and ecological responsibilities of the geographer.

Among Zelinsky’s primary areas of research were population geography and the historical geography of North America. His publications covered a variety of topics, ranging from the geography of American cemeteries to the spatial distribution of religious affiliation in the U.S. He was also known as a groundbreaker in the field of geography. According to his former student, current Provost of the University of Baltimore Joseph Wood, “[Dr. Zelinsky’s] first published article, ‘The Historical Geography of the Negro Population of Latin America’ (1948), may have been the first publication on African Americans by a geographer” (iv). Later, in the 1970s, Zelinsky was also instrumental in opening the dialogue about the lack of practicing women geographers (“The Strange Case of the Missing Female Geographer”). Read Wood's article and others in tribute to Zelinsky here in the April 2006 Geographical Review.

In addition to his scholarship and contributions to the field, Zelinsky will also be remembered at Penn State for his longstanding participation in the Department of Geography’s weekly Coffee Hour and for helping to create the university’s Population Research Institute. "Wilbur was one of the ‘gang of four’ (with Gordon DeJong [Sociology], Warren Robinson [Economics], and Paul Baker [Anthropology]) who during the 1960s helped launch a population research center and coordinate an interdisciplinary graduate instructional program in population studies at Penn State and thus helped lay the foundation for what would become the dual-title Graduate Program in Demography," writes Stephen Matthews, associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and demography.


Miller, E. Willard. The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1992. 140. Print.
Wood, Joseph S. "A Tribute to Wilbur Zelinsky." Geographical Review 96.2 (2006): Iii-Vii.JSTOR. Web. 7 May 2013. <>.


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  • University of California, Berkeley, 1947-48, Ph.D. in geography, January 1953
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1945-47, M.A. in geography, May 1946
  • University of California, Berkeley, 1943-44, B.A. with honors in geography, June 1944
  • University of North Carolina, 1943
  • George Washington University, 1942
  • Columbia Technical Institute, Washington, D.C., 1941-42
  • University of Chicago, 1939-40; 1943
  • Wright Junior College, Chicago, 1939-40
  • Edwin G. Foreman High School, Chicago, 1935-39 (Valedictorian)


  • AAG Presidential Achievement Award, 2006
  • Cullum Medal, American Geographical Society, 2001
  • John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize, 1993
  • Distinguished Scholar Award, Pennsylvania Geographical Society, 1990
  • Master Mentor Award by National Council for Geographic Education, 1990
  • Distinguished Service Award, Society for the North American Cultural Survey, 1988
  • Guggenheim Fellow, 1981-82
  • Award for Meritorious Contributions to the Field of Geography by AAG, 1966


  • Association of American Geographers
  • American Geographical Society
  • American Name Society
  • International Union for the Scientific Study of Population
  • Society for the North American Cultural Survey Scientists
  • Institute for Public Information
  • Socially and Ecologically Responsible Geographers (SERGE)
  • Association of Population Geographers of India (Honorary Member)
  • American Folklore Society, Foodways Section
  • Amici Linguarum
  • American Studies Association

Professional Service

  • Member, Executive Committee, American Name Society, 1996+
  • Editorial Board, Journal of Cultural Geography, 1996+
  • Editorial Board, Encyclopedia of Global Change, 1995+
  • Advisory Board, Encyclopedia of New England Culture, 1994 - 2005
  • Member, Editorial Board, Markers: Journal of the Association of Gravestone Studies, 1994+
  • Member, Publications Committee for the 1992 International Geographical Congress, 1989-92
  • Member, Commission on the Placename Survey of the United States, 1989+
  • Contributing Editor, American Demographics, 1988-1994
  • Honorary Member, Association of Population Geographers of India, 1988+
  • Associate Editor, Demography, 1987-89
  • Member, A.A.G. Committee on Bibliography, 1985+
  • Chairman, A.A.G. Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, 1983-86
  • Member, Editorial Committee, Atlas of Pennsylvania, 1982-89
  • Member, Editorial Board, Names: Journal of the American Name Society, 1982+
  • Advisory Screening Committee, Council for International Exchange of Scholars, 1982-85
  • Member, Advisory Board, Church Membership Study, 1980-82
  • Member, Library Advisory Board, American Geographical Society, 1979-81
  • Member, Comite de Patronage, Espace-Populations-Societes (Universite de Lille), 1983+
  • Member, Editorial Board, Discussion Papers in Geolinguistics, 1981
  • Member, Editorial Board, Social Science Quarterly, 1978-1984
  • Member, Review Committee for Doctoral Program in Geography in Louisiana, 1976
  • Member, Advisory Board, Coalition for Women in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1976+
  • Advisory Editor, Progress in Human Geography, 1976-89
  • Member, Board of Directors, Society for the North American Cultural Survey, 1975+
  • President, Society for the North American Cultural Survey, 1982+
  • Member, Pennsylvania State University Press Committee, 1973-90
  • President, A.A.G., 1972-73
  • Vice-president, A.A.G., 1971-72
  • Chairman, Panel on International Development, A.A.G. Committee on Development and Planning, 1970-71
  • Chairman, Honors Committee, A.A.G., 1968-69
  • Member, International Geographical Union's Commission on the Cartography and Geography of World Population, 1964-72
  • Councillor, A.A.G., 1965-68
  • Member, Commission on College Geography, A.A.G., 1963-67
  • Member, Program Committee for annual meetings of A.A.G., 1961,1979, and 1984.
  • Chairman, Census Advisory Committee, A.A.G., 1959-60
  • Chairman, West Lakes Division, Association of American Geographers, 1959-61

Previous Appointments

  • Professor of Geography, The Pennsylvania State University, 1963 to 1987
  • Professor Emeritus, 1987-2013
  • Geography Department Head, 1970-1976
  • Director, Population Issues Research Office, 1972-74
  •  Institute for Shipboard Education, Semester at Sea Program, Spring 1997
  • Visiting Professor, University of Washington, Spring 1995
  • Guest Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, July-August 1993
  • Visiting Reader in Geography, The Flinders University of South Australia, 1991
  • Visiting W. Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies, University of Notre
  • Dame, 1990-91
  • Visiting Professor, University of Maryland, Spring 1981
  • Map consultant, Denoyer-Geppert Co., Chicago, 1974-87
  • Visiting professor, University of Washington, Summer 1968
  • Professor of geography, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1959-63
  • Special instructor in geography, Wayne State University, Detroit, 1955-59
  • Industrial analyst, Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Co., Detroit, 1954-59
  • Project associate in geography, University of Wisconsin, 1952-54
  • Assistant professor of geography, University of Georgia, Athens, 1948-52
  • Teaching assistant in geography, University of Wisconsin, 1947
  • Terrain analyst, U.S. Corps of Engineers, American Occupation Zone in Germany, 1946
  • Research assistant in geography (under Leo Waibel), University of Wisconsin, 1945-46
  • Map draftsman, J. McA. Smiley and R. E. Harrison, New York City, 1944-45
  • Map draftsman, H. M. Gousha Co., Chicago, 1943
  • Map draftsman, R. M. Wilmotte & Co., Washington, D.C., 1942-43


  • Charles E. Roberts, M.S. Geography (1987). From Parkway to Freeway: Roadside Design before the Interstate 1890-1956 Expert and Novice Spatial Problem Solving
  • Mark Morey, M.S. Geography (1983). The Use of Coal by the Electric Utility Industry, 1960-2000: A Geographic Perspective
  • David B. Jenkins, M.S. Geography (1981). The Historical Geography of Afghanistan as a Buffer State
  • Kathleen Gross, M.S. Geography (1978). A Comparative Analysis of Urbanization: The United States and Brazil
  • Judith H. Johnsrud, Ph.D. Geography (1977). A Political Geography of the Nuclear Power Controversy: The Peaceful Atom in Pennsylvania
  • Courtney D.C. Smith, Ph.D. Geography (1974). Invasion, Succession and Conflict: The Case of St. Leonard, Quebec
  • Mark A. Hornberger, Ph.D. Geography (1974). The Spatial Distribution of Ethnic Groups in Selected Counties in Pennsylvania 1800-1880: A Geographic Interpretation
  • Roman A. Cybriwsky, Ph.D. Geography (1972). Social Relations and the Spatial Order in a Neighborhood in Central Philadelphia
  • Gary A. Fuller, Ph.D. Geography (1972). The Spatial Diffusion of Birth Control in Chile
  • Anne M. Kane, M.S. Geography (1971). Population Changes in Small Towns in Pennsylvania. An Ecological Analysis of the Negro Community in the Washington SMSA
  • John W. Florin, Ph.D. Geography (1971). Death in New England: An Analysis in Time and Space. Co adviser: P.D. Simkins
  • Joseph W. Glass, Ph.D. Geography (1971). The Pennsylvania Culture Region: A Geographical Interpretation of Barns and Farmhouses
  • Courtney D.C. Smith, M.S. Geography (1970). Some Remarks on Resource Plans and a Resource Conflict A Geographical Sorie into Language, Multilingualism and the City. Co adviser:  A.V. Williams
  • Gene E. Krueger, M.S. Geography (1970). The Ethnography and Spatial Distribution of Restaurants, Pennsylvania 1967. The Ecology of Commercial Lime Production in Southern Florida: A Study in Environmental Determinism.
  • Warren D. Slocum, M.S. Geography (1969). An Areal Account of Agricultural Land Abandonment in Pennsylvania, 1945-1959
  • David B. Stevenson, M.S. Geography (1969). Place Names of Centre County: A Geographical Analysis
  • Richard R. Pillsbury, Ph.D. Geography (1968). The Urban Street Patterns of Pennsylvania Before 1815: A Study in Cultural Geography
  • John W. Florin, M.S. Geography (1966). The Advance of Frontier Settlement in Pennsylvania, 1683-1850: A Geographic Interpretation