Professor John Thompson, 1924 - 2017

Posted on 05/26/2017 | Matt Cohn
We are sad to report that Dr. John Thompson passed away on Sunday, February 19th at the age of 92. Thompson devoted his 33-year career at the University of Illinois to advancing the disciplines of geography and Latin American studies, and has left a lasting impact in both fields. He published widely during and after his academic career, and his book on dredging technology in Illinois is still the point of reference for how the prairie was adapted for agriculture through land drainage.

Thompson was born April 21, 1924, in Talara, Peru. He maintained a strong connection with Latin and South America throughout his life – speaking fluent Spanish and traveling frequently to the region to explore and conduct research.

Thompson began his career at Illinois as a professor of geography in 1963. He was also the founding director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), from 1963 – 1969. CLACS is still thriving as a U.S. Department of Education-funded National Resource Center in Latin American Studies, and honored Dr. Thompson during its 50th year anniversary celebration in 2013 with a plaque and special session entitled “Our not-so-Humble Beginnings.”

When Dr. Joseph Russell stepped down as the first official Geography department head in 1965, Thompson was unanimously chosen as his successor, and served as head until 1974. Thompson made substantial improvements to the departments’ physical geography curriculum, and established the introductory course “Earth’s Physical Systems,” which is still offered as GEOG 103.

Thompson also served as an undergraduate academic advisor. His dedication to undergraduate education in geography lives on through a generous gift to our department: each spring, we award several graduating seniors the John Thompson Prize, which recognizes outstanding academic achievement and departmental leadership and activities.

Thompson was a pioneer in prairie dredging and agriculture-focused drainage, and he continued researching and publishing as an emeritus professor, maintaining close contact with the department. Among his many publications, his book Wetlands Drainage, River Modification, and Sectoral Conflict in the Lower Illinois Valley, 1890-1930 is still highly regarded in the field.