Norton Sidney Ginsburg

1921 - 2007

Geographer Norton Sidney Ginsburg, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, passed away recently of natural causes on July 30, 2007, at the age of 85. A native Chicagoan born August 24, 1921, he was an alumnus (BA, MA, and PhD) of the University of Chicago, earning his doctorate in 1949. Ginsburg was a former president of the Association of American Geographers, Senior Fellow and for a brief time Dean at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and Director of the Institute of Environment and Policy at the East-West Center.

Ginsburg served as a geographer in the U.S. Army Map Service during 1941-42 and in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1942-46. He was a professor of geography at the University of Chicago from 1951 to 1986. In the 1960s, Ginsburg served as associate dean of the Social Science Division, and later as chairman of the Department of Geography (1978-1985). Following his retirement from the University he became Director of the Environment and Policy Institute of the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, a post he held for five years. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1983.

Ginsburg’s academic interests focused principally on the Far East. He was coauthor of The Pattern of Asia (1958), principal author of the Atlas of Economic Development (1960), and co-editor of seven multi-authored works on the economic development and urbanization of East and Southeast Asia. In 1990, a series of lectures he gave was published as The Urban Transition: Reflections on the American and Asian Experiences by the Chinese University Press of Hong Kong. Ginsburg provided editorial oversight for Southeast Asian volumes of area handbooks published for the Human Relations Area Files in the 1950s. He also contributed as editorial consultant to the Aldine Publishing Company and the Denoyer-Geppert map company in the 1970s, and the Ocean Yearbook in the 1980s and 90s.

Ginsburg was a long-time member of the AAG, serving as secretary from 1963–64 before becoming president in 1969–70. In 1959, he received the Association’s Meritorius Achievement Award. He was also the subject of two interviews recorded in Geographers on Film (1971 and 1995).

Norton S. Ginsburg (Necrology). 2007. AAG Newsletter 42(7): 20.

Norton Ginsburg, long-time professor at the University of Chicago, died on 30 July 2007. Perhaps best remembered for his scholarly work and professional activities on various aspects of Asia and its urban and economic geography, Norton was always a Chicago man. He began his life on the north side of Chicago where he was born to immigrant Jewish parents and began his distinguished academic career in the Chicago public schools.

Following the example of his older sister, he received a scholarship and entered the University of Chicago in 1937 at the age of sixteen. There he quickly came under the influence of Robert Platt and Chauncey Harris, whose interests in regional and urban studies provided an intellectual and scholarly framework on which to expand his early interest in maps and international studies. In 1941 Norton was awarded the BA degree in geography, after which he moved to Washington, D.C., and accepted a position with the Army Map Service.

In January 1943, Norton joined the Navy and was soon commissioned Ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He was sent to the Advanced Navy Intelligence School and to Japanese language school at the University of Colorado in 1944. After duty in the Joint Intelligence Center of the Pacific Theatre, he was assigned to the Sixth Marine Division in North China as the war in the Pacific was coming to an end. During his service in China, he had the opportunity to travel and to visit other cities and regions and to enhance his growing interest in China, its culture, and its geography. In 1946, he was transferred to the Department of State as a map intelligence officer in Shanghai, where he served until he was discharged as a Lieutenant from the U.S. Naval Reserve.

After completing his military service, Norton returned to the University of Chicago and began graduate study in the Department of Geography. He received the MA in 1947 and was admitted to the PhD program, which he completed in 1949 with a dissertation on Japanese prewar trade and shipping flows in the Pacific Basin (Ginsburg 1949a).

Academic Finishing and Entering the Professoriate

Norton’s interest in Asia had been galvanized by his wartime service and his thinking about the future and what areas of the world would be most significant. The Chinese revolution in 1949 came to a communist dénouement, the consequences of which for the United States were the subject of endless and contentious debates and arguments among policymakers and politicians. Whatever the implications for American foreign policy, it was clear to Norton that China and its neighbors Japan and Southeast Asia were emerging as critical areas for future study and analysis. In 1950 he headed to Hong Kong and Malaya as a Fulbright Research Fellow where he remained for a year and where he continued his Chinese language study. His career trajectory as scholar and teacher was shaping up with a strong focus on East Asia and its neighbors.

In 1951 the faculty of the Geography Department at the University of Chicago invited Norton to join them as assistant professor. Norton flourished in the Department of Geography, where his hard work and emerging path-breaking scholarship on the urban and economic geography of Japan, Malaya, and China were being increasingly recognized. The 1950s were a period of intense scholarly work for Norton, as he published energetically in mainstream geography journals such as the Annals of the Association of American GeographersGeographical Review, and Economic Geography, as well as books and monographs. For example, in 1953 he published a monograph on Taiwan (or Formosa as it was then called) and in 1958 a book on Malaya with coauthor Chester Roberts.

The culmination and chef d’oeuvre of this period, however, was The Pattern of Asia (Ginsburg 1958), a more than 900-page textbook masterwork that Norton edited and to which he contributed a major section on Japan and Southeast Asia. This book, with its thematic treatment of the changing political and economic geography, aimed to elucidate the various problems and potentialities of the countries of Asia. Although appearing in only one edition, the book became the standard American textbook and a major reference source on Asia for a generation of graduate students during the 1960s and 1970s. Another important and well-recognized scholarly production was the Atlas of Economic Development published by the University of Chicago Press in 1960. This atlas, done at the behest of Bert Hoselitz and in which Brian Berry provided the statistical analysis, provided a broad spatial view of the varying levels and indicators of economic development of the countries of the world. As a pioneering effort at statistical mapping with a general focus on economic development indicators, it garnered a good bit of attention at the time of its publication.

Norton’s editorial competence and expertise was also moving in parallel with his scholarly output and reputation, and he was in demand as an editor and academic organizer. Norton was also increasingly drawn into writing for the Encyclopedia Britannica and for such outlets as the Area Handbook series that various branches of the U.S. government were producing for different parts of the world.

His academic career at Chicago progressed rapidly as he moved through the professorial ranks in short order: associate professor in 1956 and professor in 1960. In the late 1950s, as his talents for academic leadership and management began to emerge, he began to assume administrative responsibilities, first as assistant dean in the Social Sciences Division. Over the next two decades he would serve as associate dean of the College and the Social Sciences Division as well as chair of the Geography Department.

External Activities and Scholarly Leadership

In addition to his work at the University of Chicago, Norton took on active duties in a number of scholarly organizations. For example, he was very involved in the affairs of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), as review editor of the flagship journal, the Annals (1956–1960), and as the acting editor (1961–1962). In 1959 he received a citation from the AAG for “meritorious contributions to the field of geography.” From 1963 to 1966 he served as Secretary of the AAG. Norton was a member of the AAG Commission on College Geography from 1966 to 1969. In 1969 he was elected vice president of the AAG and succeeded to the presidency the following year (1970–1971). He also served on the Board of Directors of the Association for Asian Studies (1958–1961). His involvement with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) led to membership in the SSRC Committee on Urbanization (1958–1965) and to service as Secretary of the SSRC/ACLS Joint Committee on Contemporary China (1959–1963).

Norton had long-standing interests in both maps and Asia, as seen in his early academic and military work, and these help explain his intellectual commitment to geography. He was involved as a consulting editor on Asia for Denoyer-Geppert, and his name appears on a number of wall maps of Asia that Denoyer-Geppert produced for classroom use. In addition, he was a consulting editor for the Aldine University Atlas (1969), a widely used and popular college atlas. Perhaps his most significant cartographic effort was editing and republishing a very important work that had appeared in the early part of the twentieth century, Albert Herrmann’s Historical and Commercial Atlas of China. Norton served as general editor for a reissuing of parts of this atlas, An Historical Atlas of China, with a long prefatory essay by Paul Wheatley, that Aldine Publishing produced in 1966.

In 1967 Norton was appointed to the Executive Committee of the U.S. National Committee for UNESCO, a five-year appointment. He served as Chairman of its Committee on the Environment from 1970 to 1972. Also in 1967, he was appointed as Chairman of the Urban Development Seminar of the Southeast Asian Development Advisory Group (SEADAG), an arm of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). He served on the SEADAG Executive Committee for two years (1969–1970). In 1968 he was Fulbright lecturer at the University of Delhi. From 1973 to 1976 he served on the Committee on International Environmental Programs of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1971 Norton was presented with an unusual and very significant professional opportunity. The former charismatic and innovative president of the University of Chicago, Robert M. Hutchins, invited Norton to join him and a group of distinguished scholars at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. Norton was asked to serve as Dean of the Academic Program as well as Senior Fellow in the Center. This three-year appointment was to prove very important both personally as well as professionally. It was during this period that Norton met his future wife, Diana, and they were married two years later in 1973. It was here that Norton also came into contact with the esteemed scholar Elizabeth Mann Borgese, with whom he began an important scholarly collaboration in editing the annual Ocean Yearbook, an activity that he continued for a number of years. Other noteworthy achievements in 1983 were the awards of a Fulbright Lectureship at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the spring followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship for scholarly study.

After returning to Chicago, Norton renewed his strong interest in Hawaii, where he had served as Senior Specialist at the East-West Center in 1967. In 1979, 1980, and 1982 he visited the Center as a Fellow in the Environment and Policy Institute. In 1984 he was visiting distinguished professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. Following his retirement from the University of Chicago in 1986, Norton was appointed Director of the Environment and Policy Institute in the East-West Center and served in that capacity for five years.

During this period he organized a number of professional conferences and oversaw the work of the Institute in its effort to bring together scholars and policymakers from Asia, North America, and the Pacific Basin to address various pressing environmental and related concerns. Norton was generous in inviting his former students and colleagues who had appropriate expertise to participate in some of these conferences and studies. In this way he was able to ensure that a geographic perspective was part of the intellectual discourse in addressing environmental issues in the Pacific Basin.

Out of this period came the edited volume, The Extended Metropolis: Settlement Transition in Asia (Ginsburg, Koppel, and McGee 1991) that focused on models and processes of Asian urbanization drawn from his long and fruitful scholarly collaboration with Terry McGee. In this volume, Norton and Terry, along with other colleagues, expounded on the idea of a distinctive form and process of Asian urbanization in which particular spatial patterns and forms emerged to reflect the social and economic forces at work in densely inhabited alluvial plains and basins that were undergoing rapid growth, development, and urbanization.

Norton’s own ideas on this concept were distilled from his long experience in Asia and his scholarly focus on the processes and forces that underpinned the rapid urbanization and changes in urban morphology that he had witnessed and studied in China, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia. Those of us who were his students had listened to his lectures on this topic and had seen him at work in the field and in various conferences and seminars that he organized, where he often moderated and led serious discussions. Some of his thinking on the matter of the processes and dimensions of urban change in Asia were summarized in a comparative framework in a monograph published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, The Urban Transition: Reflections on the American and Asian Experiences (Ginsburg 1990). This monograph grew out of a series of lectures he presented at the Chinese University in the late 1980s. It was followed by another brief paper, Planning the Future of the Asian City (Ginsburg 1994), published by the Hong Kong Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies.

Support for Students and Colleagues

Norton was well known for his generosity and support for his students and colleagues and friends, which extended to both professional and personal associations, and enabled those who worked with him to realize they would have his full and enthusiastic support. Although he was often away and not always available to his students owing to his active engagements in numerous professional activities beyond Chicago, he could always be counted on to assist when deadlines were approaching, and he took a strong interest in the academic progress of his students and their accomplishments. Norton was a sometimes demanding and often rigorous classroom teacher. His assignments were long and sometimes daunting, but they were reasonable. He expected a seriousness of attitude and purpose coupled with hard work and he assumed that his students would demonstrate sufficient self-reliance and creativity to do their work in a timely and competent manner.

Many of Norton’s students did overseas field work. This commitment required additional time as well as financial resources to assist in the completion of foreign field research and sometimes language study. Norton was very skilled in working with students to direct them to appropriate funding agencies and to provide strong supporting letters and documents to help them compete for funding for overseas studies.

Norton’s association with and support for his students did not end after the completion of their formal studies and graduation. In fact, in many cases his friendship and support became greater after graduation. He was very helpful in assisting former students in job searches and advising on how best to manage an academic or other professional career. Once former students were advancing in their own careers, he was also exceptionally gracious and generous in offering critiques of their scholarly publications and in providing sage counsel on the advancement of a career.

He worked with a number of students from foreign countries, especially from various parts of Asia, and was known to all as a warm and sympathetic faculty supporter who could be counted on to give solid academic guidance as well as to provide a kind and friendly word for those who might have felt isolated and lonely in a faraway place. His commitment to foreign area studies and to assisting those from foreign places is seen in his lengthy and devoted service (1976–1985) on the Board of International House, a wonderful institution on the campus of the University of Chicago that serves as dormitory, cafeteria, recreational center, and meeting place for foreign and domestic students, dedicated to encouraging understanding and friendship among them.

Memorial Scholarship in Norton’s Memory

A memorial service was held for Norton in the library of the Quadrangle Club, the faculty club at the University of Chicago, on 1 December 2007. The setting was most fitting, as it was a place that Norton very much enjoyed and where he spent many pleasant hours on the tennis courts and with his colleagues. After testimonials from friends, colleagues, and former students, a University development officer announced the creation of an Odyssey Scholarship in Norton’s name to assist undergraduate scholarship students. This Odyssey Scholarship Challenge is a new scholarship fund at Chicago set up as a matching gift from an alumnus. It is most appropriate to honor Norton in this way, as he was a scholarship student at Chicago as an undergraduate and he was devoted, as noted earlier, to assisting his students by supporting their Chicago education. 1 Norton’s family believes this is the most suitable memorial for a life that was devoted to improving the human condition through scholarly advancement and understanding. He is survived by his wife Diana, sons Jeremy and Alexander, daughter-in-law Cheryl, and brother Gilbert.

Norton Ginsburg will be remembered for almost half a century of distinguished scholarly work on the changing urban and economic geography of East and Southeast Asia, as well as for editing and guiding environmental and policy work focused on the Pacific Basin. He was a gifted teacher and mentor, and his colleagues and former students will recall him fondly as a caring and concerned person who served not only as a grand academic model, instructor, and advisor but as a close and supportive friend.


I am indebted to Norton’s widow, Diana, for her help in providing information and assisting with the accuracy of this narrative. Any errors are, of course, my responsibility. In preparing this memorial, a number of Norton’s former students and colleagues have offered thoughts and comments and for these I am most grateful. They include Baruch Boxer, Richard Edmonds, Gil Latz, Alec Murphy, James Osborn, Shue Tuck Wong, and Yue-man Yeung.


1. Those who wish to make a contribution to the Norton Ginsburg Odyssey Scholarship fund for a matching commitment should contact the Development Office at the University of Chicago ( or call 773-702-8884.


·         1. Borgese, Elisabeth Mann and Ginsburg, Norton, eds. 1979–1987. Ocean yearbook, Vol. 1–6, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

·         2. Borgese, Elisabeth Mann, Ginsburg, Norton and Morgan, Joseph, eds. 1989–1996. Ocean yearbook, Vol. 7–12, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

·         3. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1947. Ch’ang-ch’un. Economic Geography, 23: 290–307.

·         4. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1948. Ch’ing-tao. Economic Geography, 23: 181–200.

·         5. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1949a. Japanese prewar trade and shipping in the Oriental Triangle, Department of Geography, University of Chicago. Research Paper No. 6

·         6. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1949b. Manchurian Railway Development. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 9: 398–411.

·         7. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1951. China’s railway network. Geographical Review, 41: 470–74.

·         8. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1953. The economic resources and development of Formosa, New York: Institute of Pacific Relations.

·         9. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1955. The great city in Southeast Asia. American Journal of Sociology, 60: 455–62.

·         10. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1957. Natural resources and economic development. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 47: 197–212.

·         11. Ginsburg, Norton S., ed. 1958. The pattern of Asia, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

·         12. Ginsburg, Norton S., ed. 1960. Essays on geography and economic development by Brian Berry and others, Department of Geography, University of Chicago. Research Paper No. 62

·         13. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1961a. Atlas of economic development, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

·         14. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1961b. The dispersed metropolis: The case of Okayama. Toshi Mondai, 52: 631–40. [Municipal Problems]

·         15. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1965. “Urban geography and non-western areas”. In The study of urbanization, Edited by: Hauser, P. M. and Schnore, L. F. 311–46. New York: Wiley.

·         16. Ginsburg, Norton S., ed. 1966. An historical atlas of China by Albert Herrmann, Chicago: Aldine.

·         17. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1969. Aldine university atlas, Edited by: Fullard, Harold and Darby, H. C. Chicago: George Philip, and Son, Aldine. Consulting ed.

·         18. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1972a. How China sees herself. The Center Magazine, 5: 1–6.

·         19. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1972b. The mission of a scholarly society. The Professional Geographer, 24: 1–6.

·         20. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1972c. “Planning the future of the Asian city”. In The city as a center of change in Asia, Edited by: Dwyer, D. J. 43–59. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

·         21. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1973. From colonialism to national development: Geographical perspectives on patterns and policies. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 63: 1–21.

·         22. Ginsburg, Norton S., ed. 1975. Asia: Visual-relief Asia (map), Chicago: Denoyer-Geppert.

·         23. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1990. The urban transition: Reflections on the American and Asian experiences, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

·         24. Ginsburg, Norton S. 1994. Planning the future of the Asian city: A twenty-five-year retrospective, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies. Occasional Paper No. 36

·         25. Ginsburg, Norton, Holt, Sidney and Murdoch, William, eds. 1974. Pacem in Maribus III: The Mediterranean marine environment and the development of the region, Malta: University of Malta Press.

·         26. Ginsburg, Norton, Koppel, Bruce and McGee, T. G., eds. 1991. The extended metropolis: Settlement transition in Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

·         27. Ginsburg, Norton and Lalor, Bernard, eds. 1984. China: The 80s era, Boulder, CO: Westview.

·         28. Ginsburg, Norton, Osborn, James and Blank, Grant. 1986. Geographic perspectives on the wealth of nations, Department of Geography, University of Chicago. Research Paper No. 220

·         29. Ginsburg, Norton S. and Chester, F. Roberts Jr. 1958. Malaya, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

·         30. Ginsburg, Norton. 1990. Resources/environment: Perspectives on critical issues, Environment and Policy Institute, East-West Center. Working paper No. 24

·         31. Leung, C. K. and Ginsburg, Norton, eds. 1980. China: Urbanization and national development, Department of Geography, University of Chicago. Research Paper No. 196

Pannell, Clifton W. “Norton S. Ginsburg, 1921-2007: Teacher and Scholar of Asia, Mentor, Editor, Academic Administrator, and Director.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99, no. 4 (2009): 805-809.