back to news April 7, 2014

International Pioneer in Geography Remembered

Lawrence A. Brown, Distinguished University Professor and former chair of the Department of Geography, died on April 6, 2014, surrounded by his family. He was 78 years old.

A Guggenheim Fellow, Brown was a father of geography’s quantitative revolution that made geography a modern social science and in turn spurred all the geo-spatial technologies, such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) that we see today. In the 1960s, geography was a discipline bent on providing descriptive portrayals of specific, often exotic places and categorizing land-human relationships. The quantitative revolution applied statistics and social-science methods to allow for the study of broad, generalizable relationships across many different places.

Brown’s book, Innovation Diffusion, became the definitive work on the adoption and geographic spread of new products and techniques. The dissemination of new ideas and products became a central topic across the social sciences beginning in the 1950s. At the time however, the prevailing social-science paradigm centered on individual consumer characteristics, such as education and personal world-world views to explain why consumers adopted products. Brown turned prevailing wisdom on its head by asking what the firm or entrepreneur did to promote the adoption of a product, such as how firms set cost, distance and advertising decisions. His “market-infrastructure perspective” became adopted so widely by business and social scientists that today it is a seamless part of marketing and academic research.

A prolific scholar, mentor and outstanding leader in geography, Brown also focused on the fields of population movement, race/ethnicity in U.S. metropolitan areas and Latin American and Third-World development.

A first-generation American, Brown’s start as a geographer reflects the classic immigrant story. His father and other relatives fled the pogroms against Jews of the Ukraine; the family name was changed from Browarnik to Brown when they immigrated to the U.S. via Ellis Island.

A self-described “dead-end kid” from Erie, Pennsylvania, Brown aspired to be an auto mechanic, but went to college because it meant something to his immigrant parents. He took a job in accounting and soon thereafter enrolled in law school, but fell in love with geography instead.

Brown’s interest in geography was first sparked when he and his brother travelled through Latin America, driving down the Pan-American Highway in the 1950s. He ran into an international development worker with a book, The Geography of Latin America. The topic engaged him for the rest of his life.

As important as research was to him, Brown valued teaching even more. He taught undergraduates and graduate students alike until he died, because he had a deep, abiding commitment to the process of education. He believed passionately that college is a place “where visions grow, where students are exposed to much, expand their horizons and accomplish things that were only flickers of fantasy before.”

Brown was the recipient of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Lifetime Achievement Honors Award, in recognition of his extraordinary vision and leadership in the field of geography; he served as the organization’s vice president, 1995-96 and as president, 1996-97. In 1996, The Ohio State University named Brown a Distinguished University Professor, the university’s highest honor and only permanent designation awarded to its most outstanding senior faculty members.

Brown earned his PhD in geography from Northwestern University in 1966.

Contributions in Brown's memory may be made to The Lawrence A. Brown Faculty Fellow Fund (642475).