William Morris Davis

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William Morris Davis was an American geographer, geologist, and meteorologist who founded geomorphology, the science of landforms. He has been dubbed the “Father of American Geography” on numerous occasions. He began his career as a meteorologist at Argentina’s National Observatory in Córdoba and left after three years to work at Harvard University, where he remained for the next 36 years. He developed an early interest in the study of landforms early in his career. In 1889, he published ‘The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania,’ which pioneered the ‘Davisian system’ of landscape analysis and became his most celebrated work in physical geography. He suggested in this publication that the physical characteristics of the land are the result of long-term, continuous erosion and that this sequential change over time was caused by an erosion cycle, which he believed was critical to understanding the present landscape and geological history. Following his retirement, he became a visiting lecturer at several universities, devoted numerous hours to writing and field research, and conducted extensive research on coral reefs and coral islands, the results of which were published in ‘The Coral Reef Problem’ (1928). He published over 500 works on geography during his lifetime.

Childhood & Adolescence

William Morris Davis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 12 February 1850. Edward M. Davis was a businessman, and Maria Mott Davis was his mother. Lucretia Mott, his maternal grandmother, was a women’s rights and anti-slavery activist.
Both of his parents were Society of Friends members. His father was eventually expelled from the society for his service in the Union Army during the War Between the States. Soon after, his mother also renounced her membership.

He was not particularly interested in sports as a child, preferring to focus on his studies. For many years, he was home schooled by his mother, which laid the groundwork for his flawless vocabulary and his steadfast commitment to his students’ accurate writing.

He was an intelligent student and graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Science degree at the age of nineteen. In 1870, he earned a Master of Engineering degree.

Career of William Morris Davis

William Morris Davis began his career as a meteorologist at Argentina’s Córdoba Observatory shortly after receiving his Master’s degree. He returned to the United States after three years and worked as a field assistant to Raphael Pumpelly on the Northern Pacific survey.

In 1877, he became an assistant to Nathaniel S. Shaler, a professor of geology at Harvard College. It was under his tutelage that he developed an enduring passion for geography.

Due to the slow pace of promotion during that era, he was listed as an instructor in Geology at Harvard from 1879 to 1885. In 1885, he was appointed Assistant Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Pennsylvania.

He published ‘The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania’ in 1889, which became his magnum opus in physical geography. He introduced the concept of the ‘Davisian system’ of landscape analysis in this publication.

The analysis indicates that the land’s physical characteristics are the result of long-term continuous erosion. This sequential change over time is what he refers to as a ‘cycle of erosion,’ a concept he believes is critical for understanding current landscapes and geological history.

He was appointed full Professor of Physical Geography in 1890 and Harvard Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology nine years later, in 1898. In 1912, he resigned from his duties and became a Harvard ’emeritus’ professor for the remainder of his years.

He took two leaves of absence from Harvard during his tenure as a professor. He was appointed Visiting Professor at Berlin University for a year in 1908 and Visiting Professor at Paris University for a year in 1911. He also lectured at a number of provincial universities in France.

After resigning from his position at Harvard, he concentrated on field research and writing. He conducted research on the evolution of coral reefs and coralline islands. His lengthy monograph ‘The Coral Reef Problem’ (1928) contained the results of extensive fieldwork in the western Pacific and the Lesser Antilles.

He also served as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley between 1927 and 1930, the University of Arizona between 1927 and 1931, Stanford University between 1927 and 1932, the University of Oregon in 1930, and the California Institute of Technology between 1931 and 1932.

Significant Works of William Morris Davis

He established his method of landscape analysis (the Davisian System) and defined ‘the cycle of erosion’ in ‘The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania’ (1889) and its sequel, ‘The Rivers and Valleys of Northern New Jersey, With Notes on the Classification of Rivers in General’ (1890).

His other seminal work was his investigation of the Triassic basins of New England and New Jersey, which was funded by the United States Geological Survey. The first report, ‘The Triassic Formation of Connecticut,’ was published in 1882, while the final and comprehensive report, ‘The Triassic Formation of Connecticut,’ was published in 1898.

Awards and Accomplishments of William Morris Davis

William Morris Davis was awarded honorary degrees by the Cape of Good Hope, Melbourne, Greifswald, and Christiana universities (Oslo). Additionally, he was an honorary member of over thirty scientific societies worldwide.

He was a co-founder of the Geological Society of America and served as its acting President in 1906 and as its President in 1911. He was instrumental in the organization of the Association of American Geographers, serving as its President in 1904, 1905, and 1909.

He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the Imperial Society of Natural History (Moscow), the New Zealand Institute, and the Imperial Society of Natural History (Moscow).

Personal History and Legacies

William Morris Davis was married three times and tragically lost two wives. In 1879, he married Springfield, Massachusetts native Ellen B. Warner. In 1914, following her demise, he married Mary M. Wyman of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1928, after the death of his second wife, he married Lucy L. Tennant of Milton, Massachusetts, who outlived him.

He died in Pasadena, California, on 5 February 1934, just a few days before his 84th birthday.

His Cambridge residence is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Davisdalen is a valley in Nathorst Land on Spitsbergen, Svalbard.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of William Morris Davis is unknown.