A Gallant Gentleman, an Ideal Friend

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s recent 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

In 1899, a 23 year-old Gilbert H. Grosvenor was finding his way as the first employee at an institution known as the National Geographic Society, which was barely keeping its head above water, and he seemed to have had a soft spot for one of our lesser-known founders, Otto Tittmann. After Tittmann’s passing in 1938, Grosvenor wrote to his son, Charles, describing him as “a gallant gentleman and one of the outstanding geographers and scientists of our period, but I shall always think of him just as the ideal friend.”

Otto Hilgard Tittmann, a geodesist, was superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and a president of the National Geographic Society. Born in Belleville, Illinois, on August 20, 1850, he was the son of Edward Tittmann, a German revolutionary who immigrated in 1848, and his wife Rosa Hilgard. He was educated in the public schools of his hometown and in St. Louis, Missouri, and although lacking university training, he was nevertheless appointed at the age of 17 an aide to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Photograph courtesy Library of Congress.

For nearly five decades Tittmann was associated with the Survey, and was in charge of many important expeditions as well as being delegated to several international conferences. In 1874 he was assistant astronomer on the expedition sent to Japan to observe the transit of Venus, and from 1889-1893 he was in charge of weights and measures. In this capacity he was chosen in 1890 to bring from Paris the standard meter now kept in the National Bureau of Standards, and inspected governmental weights and measures offices in London, Paris, and Berlin. For many years he served as the principal U.S. Commissioner in the negotiations between the U.S. and Great Britain to precisely determine the boundary line between the United States and Canada. He was also the U.S. delegate to the International Geodetic Conference, held at Berlin in 1895, and from 1895-1899 was assistant in charge of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1900 he was appointed the superintendent, serving until 1915, when he resigned to devote more time to his new position as president of the National Geographic Society, in which capacity he would serve for the next four years.

However, illness plagued him and his wife, Kate Trowbridge Wilkins, in their later years. Tittmann suffered periodic falls and fainting spells and worried that he might be a drain on the family, and Charles wrote that, “He has kept a rather cheerful frame of mind, but I do know that he has been anxious about his situation and that of my mother.” Charles helped where he could; however, it was Grosvenor who quietly came to the family’s rescue, pulling strings to have a relief bill submitted to Congress to pay Tittmann $150 per month for the rest of his life. He also made sure that the Geographic gave him a grant of $100 per month, noting that, “It is not possible to measure the benefits conferred on The Society by your faith in the purposes of The Society and your wise counsels given these forty-seven years without remuneration.”

In response to Charles’ profuse thanks, Grosvenor wrote, “The encouragement and warm-hearted understanding which your father and mother invariably gave me from the first day I arrived in Washington and began my life here has remained one of the most happy experiences of my life.” Describing his father’s passing on August 21, 1938, Charles wrote, “His end was remarkably peaceful and harmonized in that respect with his later years. It was Sunday afternoon, about 3:45 p.m. the day following his birthday. My oldest daughter, her husband, their little boy, and I had just left Leesburg by automobile for Washington, and five minutes later in crossing the parlor floor, he suddenly stumbled, was supported by the housekeeper, said he was all right, with a smile, and the next instant was gone.”

Human Journey