Notable geographer with keen understanding of the world and humanity

Anne Buttimer-Broberg obituary: Born October 31st, 1937 – Died July 15th, 2017


Prof Anne Buttimer-Broberg, who has died aged 79, was one of the most eminent geographers of her generation. Prof Gerald Mills, whom she recruited to the UCD School of Geography and where he is current head, described her as “the consummate intellectual, interested in big ideas and the capacity for sharing knowledge across disciplines. To facilitate this, she was centrally involved in the creation of communities of academics that crossed language and national boundaries.”

Buttimer-Broberg grew up on a farm in west Cork, one of six children of Jeremiah Buttimer and Eileen Kelleher. Her father was instrumental in setting up the National Farmers’ Association and An Foras Talúntais (now Teagasc) and was closely associated with An Bord Bia and the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. She attended local national schools in Dunmanway and Glenville and secondary school at Presentation Crosshaven and Loreto Fermoy.

Good at languages, she took a BA in Latin, geography and maths at UCC, from where she graduated with an MA in geography in 1958. Her linguistic ability facilitated her later international collaborative work in several languages. Having decided to become a nun, she went to join her older sister who was a Dominican in Seattle.

There she became part of a group of academic nuns examining new developments in social sciences; specifically, she was asked to explore the potential for social geography within teacher training at Seattle University, which became the basis for her PhD awarded in 1968. She studied philosophy as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Leuven in Belgium before being appointed assistant professor of geography at Seattle University.

Recruited as lecturer in urban studies at the University of Glasgow, she was part of an interdisciplinary team evaluating urban-planning processes, especially involving the movement of people from inner-city slums to new estates. Her work here developed her interest in the concept of “lived space” and its importance to people’s wellbeing.

Subsequently, she was appointed assistant professor and then professor at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. She left the Dominicans in 1976 and in 1979 married Bertram Broberg, also an academic. As a visiting lecturer at the Lund Institute of Technology, Sweden, she began the “Dialogue Project”, the piece of work of which she was most proud. Its recordings capture a wide cross-section of academics and their world views. She interviewed everyone personally and created a reflective environment for discussing personal life stories.

During the 1980s, she was a visiting lecturer at universities in the US, Sweden, Canada and Ireland and in 1991 was appointed professor of geography at UCD.

“Her major project at UCD was on landscapes and life, which brought together her interests in the places that people occupy and the potential for achieving a balance among society, environment and livelihoods at an appropriate scale. In many ways, it encapsulated her geographic understanding of the world and the place of humans within it,” said Prof Mills.

She retired in 2003 but remained active long after that.

She received numerous awards, including the Association of American Geographers Award 1986, the University of Kentucky Ellen Semple Churchill Award 1991, the Royal Geographical Society IBG Murchison Award 1997, the Centennial Award of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society 2001, the Johan August Wahlberg Gold Medal 2009 (presented to her by King Carl Gustav of Sweden and one of her proudest moments) and the Vautrin Lud International Prize for Geography 2014 (known as the Nobel Prize for Geography).

She became the first woman president of the International Geographical Union in 2002.

She wrote that all her professional work was directed by the Dominican ethos of sharing with others the fruits of one’s own contemplation. She loved social occasions and often brought family, colleagues, friends and neighbours together to celebrate birthdays and other events. Her husband died in May 2005 and she is survived by her sisters, Sr Mary Dermot, and Carmel, brother Andreas, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, nieces, nephews, grandniece and grandnephews.