When Gilbert M. Grosvenor retired from the board of trustees of the National Geographic Society on June 21, 2014—60 years to the day after he started working here—he left an organization built by five generations of his family. (His daughter, obstetrician Alexandra Grosvenor Eller, continues the tradition: She was elected to the National Geographic board in 2009.)
As the editor in chief of the magazine, president of the Society, and then chairman of the board, Grosvenor has helped broaden National Geographic’s reach through children’s publications, local-language editions of the magazines and books, television, and geography education.
You studied premed at Yale. What made you change course and come to work at the National Geographic Society?
Between my junior and senior years I went to the Netherlands on a summer program to rebuild dikes washed out by the great flood of 1953. I photographed and co-authored a story that was published in the magazine. Although I’m not sure I realized it at the time, it changed my life. I discovered the power of journalism. And that’s what we are all about—recording those chronicles of planet Earth.
Your geography education foundation essentially restored the study of geography to the American classroom. Why is geography so important?
Geography is an essential part of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] educa- tion. We need to do better with that. To understand environmental issues and the dynamics of Earth you have to understand geography. Why is it that a bottle released off the coast of Florida ends up in Ireland? That’s the Gulf Stream at work. What about global warming, the dramatic shift north of flora and fauna, and the fact that Canada will become the breadbasket of North America? Patterns of immigration are also all about geography.
Your advice to successors?
Always do what we do best, not what others do.