Geography as a subject has been taught at the University since a year after it founding in 1857. The Department came into existence in 1860 with the creation of the Division of History and Geography, and in 1902 was established as a separate department. By either measure, the Geography Program at Illinois State is one two or three oldest in the country. It is also one of the first programs established on the Illinois State campus. Today, there are nine tenure line faculty members and one full-time instructor.
Geology at Illinois State dates to the appearance of John Wesley Powell, but after his departure eighty-seven years elapsed until the Department hired its next academic geologist, Tom Searight in 1959. The undergraduate major in Geology was established in 1969 with three faculty members. In 1993 a master's program in hydrogeology was inaugurated, and the geology faculty grew to its current complement of seven with one full-time instructor.
Although the early emphasis among the department faculty was on teaching, it is clear that many were active scholars as well, and that tradition continues today. Current faculty have active research agendas, and bring that experience into the classroom.
Without question, John Wesley Powell is the most widely recognized person associated with the Department. Powell studied at Wheaton College, Oberlin College, and Illinois College. He taught for a short time in Hennepin, Illinois, and was a major in the Union Army during the Civil War, losing a part of his right arm at Shiloh. While at Vicksburg, he was awarded an honorary master's degree by Illinois Wesleyan University, and at the conclusion of the war he came to that institution as Professor of Geology. In 1867, he transferred to Illinois State where he held the titles of Professor of Geology and Curator of the Museum of Natural History, an institution he helped found and for which he persuaded the Illinois legislature to provide some funding.
About the time of his arrival on this campus, Powell began his pioneering expeditions to the American West that were the basis of much of his subsequent fame. These explorations were Illinois State University's first ventures into extensive fieldwork, and their results gave the University a national reputation.
In 1872, Powell resigned his campus posts and left for Washington, D.C. His accomplishments there were notable. He became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881 to 1894. As the director, he was a principal force in expanding the institution into a number of areas, including groundwater, flood control, and irrigation studies. He further served as President of the American Academy of Science, then considered the highest honor for an American scientist. Powell was also a founder and a president of the Cosmos Club and a member of the National Academy of Sciences; and he helped establish the National Geographic Society and the Geological Society of America. Powell, who had honorary degrees from several institutions, died in 1902 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Today Powell is most widely remembered for his Colorado River expeditions, and his record of those explorations is still in print. While he is widely known as a geologist and scientist, his writings cover a broad range of subject matter. His understanding of human environment relations in the American Southwest was keen, and his recommendations for the area's use show his grasp of the limitations to large-scale development in an arid environment. It is perhaps ironic that the massive reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam bears his name.
The Department houses a small collection of material from Powell's expeditions.
Edwin Hewett, the first geographer at Illinois State University, was born in Massachusetts and received his formal education there. His first teaching experiences, both in public schools and at Bridgewater Normal, were also in Massachusetts. Hewett, was hired by Illinois State's first President, Charles E. Hovey, to teach geography and history at $1,200 per year. Current faculty members are paid somewhat higher salaries.
Although very thorough and exacting, he was good natured, patient, and well liked. Hewett read widely, but by today's standards, he did not have much in the way of formal education. His master's degree (1863) was an honorary one from the original University of Chicago and his LL.D. was awarded by Shertleff. A deeply religious man of Puritan background, he was licensed to preach by the Baptist Church. As a scholar, he published materials in more than one discipline, and his book on pedagogy was widely used in normal schools. He had other well-known texts, and published articles and addresses in a variety of journals, including Education, Illinois School Journal, Journal of Proceedings and Address of the National Education Association, Proceedings of the National Teachers Association, and Public School Journal. Active in educational affairs, he was treasurer of the National Education Association from 1886 to 1890, was a regular contributor to School and Home Education and was on important committees of the National Education Association. Although an important figure in the University's history, and an influential educator, students at Illinois State today are familiar with Professor Hewett thanks to the large residence hall that bears his name - one of four campus buildings named for former department faculty members.