It was not obvious that the first international conference on geography would take place in Antwerp. Unlike other European countries, Belgium did not have a geographical society which could undertake such an organisation. The education of geography was barely developed, both in lower and higher education. It was just a phenomenon in the margin of a classic educational system. Geography was not even a regular topic of discussion among the scientific elite of those days. It was only in the minds of a few individuals.
Pieter Génard (born 1830, Antwerpen) had not graduated high school when he started working as a clerk for the Bureau of Benevolence. He had no formal education, but he was very eager to learn. He was self-taught in old and new languages, history, art and archeology.
At 19 years old he was appointed Assistant City Librarian. In 1863 he also became City Archivist, a function he combined with that of City Librarian from 1868 until 1873. He stayed in post as City Archivist until 1896.
Génard had no special interest in geography, but got involved with the organisation of the Conference because of his position within Antwerp's cultural society. After the Conference he stayed involved in geography. He published the Conference proceedings and pioneered the formation of the Royal Antwerp Geographical Society (Koninklijk Aardrijkskundig Genootschap van Antwerpen) which was founded in 1876.
Charles Ruelens (born 1820, Sint-Jans-Molenbeek) started as a library assistant at the Royal Library around 1840. In 1864 he was appointed Assistant Curator and by 1873 he was Curator of the Manuscripts Department.
Like Génard, he did not have a university degree. Ruelens left the University of Leuven after only one year to focus on his research; coming from a wealthy family, he could afford such a life-style. He published on the most diverse topics. But his interests are mostly book-related: bibliography, epigraphy, literature and history of publishing were his favourite topics. One of his most important studies was Annales Plantiniennes, about the Plantin publishing house in Antwerp.
Ruelens had an interest in geography early on, but started publishing about it later in life. His importance lies in organisation; under the influence of his friend Jan-Hubert Van Raemdonck he took the initiative in 1869 for the organisation of the first International Conference on Geography. In 1875 he was Belgian commissionary at the Second Conference in Paris and was responsible for Belgium's contribution to its Exhibition.
He was involved in the foundation of the Société royale belge de géographie in Brussels.
Jan-Hubert Van Raemdonck (born 1817, Sint-Niklaas) got his degree in medicine and obstetrics in 1845 at the University of Ghent. He was appointed by the Bureau of Benevolence in Sint-Niklaas as physician and enjoyed a solid reputation during his entire career. But his real influence was not as a physician, but rather as a specialist in local antiquities.
In 1861 he formed, together with a few like-minded men, the Cercle archéologique du Pays de Waas - Oudheidkundige kring Land van Waas (the Land Van Waas Archaeological Society). Under his influence the organisation expanded rapidly, stdying the local paleontology, archaeology and history. The results were published by Van Raemdonck in the important work Le Pays de Waas préhistorique.
Van Raemdonck's most important work was a study about Gerard Mercator; Gérard Mercator: sa vie et ses oeuvres. Among geographers Van Raemdonck was known as an authority on sixteenth-century cartography in the Low Countries.
Although Van Raemdonck was an important influence for Ruelens, and for the organisation of the first Conference, their paths parted before then.