William Morris Davis

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William Morris Davis
William Morris Davis.jpg
Born(1850-02-12)February 12, 1850
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
DiedFebruary 5, 1934(1934-02-05) (aged 83)
Pasadena, California
NationalityUnited States
Known forcycle of erosion; peneplains; often called the "father of American geography"
AwardsHayden Memorial Geological Award (1917)
Vega Medal (1920)
Penrose Medal (1931)
Scientific career
FieldsGeography, Geomorphology, Geology, Meteorology[1]
InfluencedCharles Cotton[2]
Jovan Cvijić[3]
Douglas Wilson Johnson[4]
Walther Penck[5]
Hans Reusch[6]
Walter Wråk[7]

William Morris Davis (February 12, 1850 – February 5, 1934) was an American geographer, geologist, geomorphologist, and meteorologist, often called the "father of American geography".

He was born into a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son of Edward M. Davis and Maria Mott Davis (a daughter of the women's advocate Lucretia Mott). Davis studied geology and geography at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School and then joined the Harvard sponsored geographic exploration party to the Colorado territory, led by the inaugural Sturgis-Hooper professor of geology, Josiah Dwight Whitney. Wild stories had circulated since soon after the Louisiana Purchase about Rocky Mountains peaks 18,000 feet or higher. The Harvard expedition set out to investigate, and found none, but they did find "14ers" (14,000-plus feet). He graduated from Harvard University in 1869 and received a Master of Mining Engineering in the following year.[8]

After his first wife died, Davis married Mary M. Wyman from Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1914, and, after her death, he married Lucy L. Tennant from Milton, Massachusetts in 1928, who survived him.

He died in Pasadena, California, shortly before his 84th birthday. His Cambridge home is a National Historic Landmark.

Scientific career[edit]


Davis initially worked in Córdoba, Argentina as a meteorologist for three years and after working as an assistant to Nathaniel Shaler, he became an instructor in geology at Harvard, in 1879. The same year he married Ellen B. Warner from Springfield, Massachusetts. While Davis never completed his PhD, he was appointed to his first full professorship in 1890 and remained in academia and teaching throughout his life.

Cycle of erosion theory[edit]

Davis was a tenacious, as well as keen observer of nature, a master of logical deduction, and a brilliant synthesizer of disparate observations and ideas.[9] From his own field observations and studies made by the original nineteenth-century surveyors of the western United States, he devised his most influential scientific contribution:the "geographical cycle". His theory first defined in his 1889 article, The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania,[1] which was a model of how rivers erode uplifted land to base level, was inspired by the work of Erasmus and Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and it had a strong evolutionary flavor. His cycle of erosion suggests that (larger) rivers have three main stages of development, generally divided into youthful, mature and old-age stages.[10] Each stage has distinct landforms and other properties associated with them, which can occur along the length of a river's upper, middle, and lower course.

Though the cycle of erosion was a crucial early contribution to the development of geomorphology, many of Davis' theories regarding landscape evolution, sometimes termed 'Davisian geomorphology', were heavily criticized by later geomorphologists. When Davis retired from Harvard in 1911, the study of landscape evolution was nearly monopolized by his theories. It was characteristic of Davis to react violently and disdainfully to criticism, particularly to the German criticism in the 1920s headed by Walther Penck; it was also his characteristic to choose to attack the most vulnerable points of that criticism.[11] Since that time, with a less dogmatic approach and greater knowledge, some authors note that Penck's and Davis' ideas have become more compatible and even complementary since the advent of modern tectonic theory. They claim that Davis' ideas are more applicable near active margins where tectonics are "cataclysmic", and Penck's ideas fit better in models of passive margins and continental platforms.[12]

He was a founder of the Association of American Geographers in 1904, and heavily involved with the National Geographic Society in its early years, writing a number of articles for the magazine. Davis retired from Harvard in 1911. He served as president of the Geological Society of America in 1911[13][14]. He was awarded the Patron's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919.[15]


The valley of Davisdalen in Nathorst Land at Spitsbergen, Svalbard is named after him.[16]




  1. ^ a b Pruyne, John; Jon T. Kilpinen (1996-11-02). "William Morris Davis". Valparaiso University Department of Geography and Meteorology. Archived from the original on 2010-08-28. Retrieved 2010-08-18. Davis' contributions cover the separate fields of geography, geology, and meteorology.
  2. ^ Chorley, Richard J.; Beckinsale, Robert P.; Dunn, Antony J. (2005) [1973]. "Chapter Twenty-Two". The History of the Study of Landforms. Volume Two. Taylor & Francis e-Library. p. 569.
  3. ^ Ford, Derek (2007). "Jovan Cvijić and the founding of karst geomorphology". Environmental Geology. 51: 675–684. doi:10.1007/s00254-006-0379-x.
  4. ^ Walter H. Bunch (1946). "Biographical Memoir of Douglas Wilson Johnson 1878–1944" (PDF). National Academy Of Sciences. Retrieved 2017-09-20.
  5. ^ Chorley et al. 2005, p. 614
  6. ^ Gjessing, Just (1967). "Norway's Paleic Surface". Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift. 21 (2): 69–132. doi:10.1080/00291956708621854.
  7. ^ Lidmar-Bergströrm, Karna (1996). "Long term morphotectonic evolution in Sweden". Geomorphology. Elsevier. 16: 33–59.
  8. ^ Koch, Philip. "William Morris Davis: Brief live of a pioneering geomorphologist: 1850-1934". Harvard Magazine. Harvard. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  9. ^ Koch, Philip. "William Morris Davis: Brief live of a pioneering geomorphologist: 1850-1934". Harvard Magazine. Harvard. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  10. ^ Robert L Bates, Julia A Jackson, ed. Dictionary of Geological Terms: Third Edition, p. 125 (1984) American Geological Institute
  11. ^ Chorley et al. 2005, p. 519
  12. ^ Saadi, Allaoua (2013), "Modelos morfogenéticos e tectônica global: Reflexőes conciliatórias", Geonomos (in Portuguese), 6 (2): 55–63
  13. ^ Fairchild, Herman LeRoy, 1932, The Geololgical Society of America 1888-1930, a Chapter in Earth Science History: New York, The Geological Society of America, 232 p.
  14. ^ Eckel, Edwin, 1982, GSA Memoir 155, The Geological Society of America — Life History of a Learned Society: Boulder, Colorado, Geological Society of America Memoir 155, 168 p., ISBN 0-8137-1155-X.
  15. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  16. ^ "Davisdalen (Svalbard)". Norwegian Polar Institute. Retrieved 24 February 2015.

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