Leo Heinrich Waibel, German geographer, studied in the biological sciences at the University of Halle and then geography at the University of Heidelberg, where he was awarded the doctoral degree in 1911 with a dissertation on animal geography in central Africa, Lebensformen und Lebensweise der Waldtiere im tropischen Afrika. While an assistant at the university he published an article entitled Physiologische Tiergeographie (1912) in which he outlined the geographical method for the study of animal life, emphasizing the functional relationship with the habitat as the basis for associations, similar to the procedure followed in plant geography. In 1911 he accompanied Professor F. Thorbecke on an expedition to Cameroon (then a German colony), where he investigated the adaptation of humans to the different habitats of forest and grassland and evaluated areas for German settlement.
In 1913 Waibel joined the expedition of Professor Friedrich Robert Jaeger* to German South West Africa (now Namibia). His field work there was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), when he joined the Schutztruppe (Territorial Guard) and became a prisoner of war. However, he was soon allowed to continue his field work, which he did mainly in the Karas Mountains, from where he sent plant specimens to Berlin. He returned to Germany in 1919 with sufficient information for a number of publications. These included ‘Etoshapfanne’ (Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft fuer Erdkunde, Berlin, 1914), ‘Der Mensch im suedafrikanischen Veld’ (Geographische Zeitschrift, 1920), a popular book entitled Urwald, Veld, Wueste (Breslau, 1921, 208 pp), Winterregen in Deutsch-Suedwest-Afrika (Hamburg, 1922, 112 pp) and ‘Gebirgsbau und Oberflaechengestalt der Karrasberge in Suedwestafrika’ (Mitteilungen aus den Deutschen Schutzgebieten, 1925). He was also the co-author of Jaeger’s Beitraege zur Landeskunde von Suedwestafrika (Berlin, 2 vols, 1920-1921). Various documents, diaries, observations and publications relating to their work are kept in the National Archive in Windhoek.
Waibel’s work up to this time established his reputation as a leading geographer and in 1922 he was appointed professor of geography at the University of Kiel, in northern Germany. During 1925-1926 he undertook a journey to Mexico and the south-western United States, which resulted in a paper on the economic geography of Mexico, a masterly study of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas (1933) which included a new topographic map, and other publications. He remained at Kiel until 1929, when he became professor of geography at the University of Bonn. His most important contributions to the theoretical foundations of geography were his Probleme der Landwirtschaftsgeographie and a small volume containing five essays on agricultural geography, Die wirtschaftsgeographische Gliederung Mexikos (1933). From 1933 he gathered information for an economic geography of tropical Africa, a monumental work entitled Die Rohstoffgebiete des tropischen Afrika (1937). As a result of conflict with Nazi ideology he was forced to give up his professorship in 1937. The next year he visited Central America and then joined the staff of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was involved in geographic studies of regions throughout the world suitable for European settlement. From 1941 to 1946 he was professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin, followed by four years of research in Brazil. He returned to the United States in 1950 as visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, but died the next year after returning to Germany. During his twelve years in North and South America his publications dealt mainly with pioneer settlement in Latin America. His book on Die europaeischen Kolonisation Suedbrasiliens (1955) was published after his death.