Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ida Tarbell's Influence on National Geographic Magazine

On January 27, 1888, the National GeographicSociety was founded in Washington, D.C., for “the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” What many may not realize is that the publication of the society’s famous periodical, National Geographic Magazine, might not have gained notoriety without the help of Ida Tarbell, the forerunner of modern investigative journalism from Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Tarbell’s fame is often associated with her 1902 McClure’s serial expose of J.D. Rockefeller, which heavily influenced the demise of Standard Oil as a monopoly. Prior to this, however, Tarbell’s career began following her graduation fromAllegheny College in 1880 where she studied biology and was the only woman in her graduating class. After a brief stint as a teacher in Ohio, Tarbell returned to Crawford County where she met Theodore L. Flood, editor of The Chautauquan, which was published in Meadville. In time, Tarbell’s talents and work ethic would, in time, lead to a position as the managing editor of the publication.

In 1890 she moved to Paris to advance her studies. During her time there she wrote an article about the famous French chemist and micro-biologist, Louis Pasteur. The experience fueled her interests in science, which made it easy her for to accept the request of her new employer, McClure’s, to write on the topic upon her return to the United States. Over the course of her research, Tabell helped several scientists write for McClure’s including Samuel P. Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute and chief rival to the Wright Brothers in the endeavor to be the first man to fly.

As a result, Tarbell’s growing circle of friends in Washington DC eventually included, inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Each Wednesday, Bell would host informal gatherings of scientists and a few family members. Because of Tarbell’s close friendship with Bell’s wife and mother-in-law, she was a regular attendee, taking in the scientific lectures that were a mainstay event during the gatherings. By then the group of regular attendees called themselves the National Geographic Society. Over this early period, members of the Society produced a number of privately published papers soon after the organization’s founding.

Impressed by the quality and range of topics, Tarbell used her influence to successfully negotiate arrangements for McClure, Phillips and Co., based In New York City, to publish the of National Geographic Magazine commercially in 1900, a move that took the magazine into the mainstream of society. While the future of the National Geographic Society and its associated publication may have been established, Tarbell’s efforts in contributing to the magazine’s success cannot be discounted.

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