Kenneth Mason (geographer)

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Kenneth Mason approx 18.jpg

Kenneth Mason MC (10 September 1887 – 2 June 1976) was a soldier and geographer notable as the first statutory professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. His work surveying the Himalayas was rewarded in 1927 with a Royal Geographic Society Founder's Medal, the citation reading for his connection between the of surveys of India and Russian Turkestan, and his leadership of the Shakshagam Expedition.

Personal life[edit]

Kenneth Mason was born at Sutton, Surrey, the son of timber broker Stanley Engledue Mason and his wife Ellen Martin Turner.[1] As a schoolboy, it was a book, Heart of a Continent by Francis Younghusband, that was to inspire Mason to take up geography and to survey India and the Himalayas when he grew older.

Educated first at Cheltenham College and then the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, Mason was commissioned in the Royal Engineers. There, he helped to pioneer stereoscopic photographic techniques that were to revolutionise cartography using aerial and land-based photography.

In 1909, Mason sailed for Karachi and was posted to the Survey of India. 1910-1912 saw him engaged on triangulation in Kashmir, where he learned climbing techniques, taught himself to ski and went on to make a stereographic land survey.

He married Dorothy Helen Robinson in 1917 and they had two sons and one daughter.

Mason was devoted to the Drapers' Company and became its Master in 1949.

Military service[edit]

In 1914, Mason's First World War service took him to France (the Neuve Chapelle sector and Loos) before, in January 1916, he landed at Basra, Iraq. In action connected to the relief of Kut, he led a night march to the flank of the Dujailah redoubt, and was subsequently awarded the Military Cross. He entered Baghdad as Intelligence Officer with the Black Watch. He was promoted to Brevet-Major and three times mentioned in dispatches. Following the Armistice he was the first to take cars across the Syrian desert.

Professional Cartographer[edit]

RGS Founders Medal

Mason returned to India after the First World War and began preparing for his most important scientific project, the exploration of the Shaksgam Valley, in 1926. At that time the only westerner to see the valley had been Younghusband. Now Mason began its survey using a photo-theodolite and stereographic techniques, laboriously collecting great quantities of data. His results, plotted in Switzerland using what, at the time, was the world's most advanced stereo plotting machine, were acclaimed as brilliantly successful, winning him the award of the 1927 Royal Geographic Society's Founder's Gold Medal.[2]

Capt FV Thompsons Stereoplotter.jpg

Mason was elected as the first statutory professor of Geography at the University of Oxford in 1932, becoming a Fellow of Hertford College. His academic work, linked to the Himalayan Journal which he had founded in 1929, addressed the challenge of naming ranges in the Karakoram region.

In 1940 Mason was contacted by Ian Fleming (who later wrote the famous James Bond stories) and Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey about the preparation of reports on the geography of countries involved in military operations. These reports were the precursors of the Naval Intelligence Division Geographical Handbook Series produced between 1941 and 1946. Mason directed a team of academics at Oxford who contributed around half of what was, at the time, one of the largest geographic projects ever attempted.[3]

Kenneth Mason retired from his Chair at Oxford in 1953.


Abode of Snow, Professor Kenneth Mason, 1955


  • [1] Includes section on Mason's contribution to the Naval Intelligence Handbooks


  1. ^ "LT-COL KENNETH MASON Notable geographer". Times. [full citation needed]
  2. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 24 August 2015. 
  3. ^ Clout, Hugh; Gosme, Cyril (April 2003). "The Naval Intelligence Handbooks: a monument in geographical writing". Progress in Human Geography 27 (2): 153–173 [156]. doi:10.1191/0309132503ph420oa. ISSN 0309-1325.