William Morris Davis

Orfeas Katsoulis | Sep 26, 2023

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William Morris Davis (Feb. 12, 1850 - Feb. 5, 1934) was an American geographer, geologist, and meteorologist, considered by many to be the father of American geography

Davis was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia, the son of Edward M. Davis and Maria Mott Davis. His father was a businessman who was expelled from the Society of Friends (Quakers) when he sided with the Northern Union in the American Civil War. His mother also subsequently left the Society of Friends.

He studied natural sciences at Harvard University and received his Master of Engineering degree in 1870. He then worked for three years in Cordoba, Argentina, as an assistant at the national meteorological observatory. In 1873 he returned to Harvard to pursue further studies in geology and physical geography. He received an appointment at Harvard as assistant to geologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. He was specifically charged with conducting fieldwork activities. Shaler attached great importance to careful field observation, and he paid close attention to processes of change in interpreting variations at the Earth's surface. Davis elaborated on these principles in his scientific work. In 1878, Davis received an appointment as instructor of geology.

At the invitation of Raphael Pumpelly, who also taught geology at Harvard, Davis conducted research in Montana on the coal deposits present. During this work, the ideas for a theoretical model to better interpret the genesis of landscape forms emerged. This model later became known as the erosion cycle. In 1885 followed his appointment as assistant professor followed by a professorial appointment in 1890. In 1899 he was appointed Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology at Harvard; he held this chair until his retirement in 1912. During the period 1909-1912 he taught for a considerable time in Berlin and in Paris. After his retirement, he continued to hold temporary appointments at the universities of Oregon, California and Arizona, among others.

Davis played an important role in the professionalization of American geography. He co-founded Association of American Geographers in 1904 and he also served as President of the Geological Society of America.

He did not hold a doctorate, but received numerous honorary doctorates

He died shortly before his 84th birthday in 1934 in Pasadena

In the 19th century, natural scientists sought a useful concept with which to describe and interpret the complexity of landscape forms. Davis was fascinated by Charles Darwin's concept of evolution and found the basic principles of Darwin's theory to be of great importance in studying the genesis of a landscape. To describe landscape genesis, Davis drew on the developmental progression of an organism. He described the stages of development of a landscape in terms of youth, maturity and old age. In 1899, he published ´The Geographical cycle´ which explained the basic principles of the erosion cycle. To him, landscape forms were a function of the interaction between structure, process and time. Structure referred to the geological structure of the area and the process concept stood for all forms of erosion. Using the erosion cycle, Davis described how rivers cut narrow V-shaped valleys in a ´young´ uplifted land mass. As they progress, these valleys deepen and widen to create a ´´ripe´ hilly landscape. As the erosion process continues even further, the landscape flattens to a peneplain. Davis clearly indicated that his model referred to an ideal sequence of landscape forms and that variations were possible according to place and circumstances. He gave numerous examples of that variation himself.

In numerous lectures, including outside the United States, Davis demonstrated and defended his views on landscape genesis. The influence of this model on geomorphology was so great for decades that it functioned as a paradigm for the practice of this science until about 1940.

At the invitation of Albrecht Penck, Davis gave a number of lectures on the erosion cycle in 1908. These lectures were translated by Alfred Rühl under the title "Die erklärende Beschreibung der Landformen" (Leipzig, 1912). Davis' ideas met with much resistance in Germany among others by Alfred Hettner and Siegfried Passarge. The deductive model of the erosion cycle did not fit into Hettner's chorological views of the essence of geography, which focused much on the description of unique associations of phenomena in a given area. These unique associations could not be predicted on the basis of deduction, Hettner felt. The discussion was conducted in all intensity also because there was much misunderstanding back and forth about definitions and principles used.

After 1950 there was increasing criticism of the theoretical foundations of the erosion cycle. Recent insights are based on the conviction that processes in geomorphological systems are not linear. There are too many chance factors so that for the same initial positions very different outcomes are conceivable. In contrast to the model with which Davis worked, nowadays more attention is paid to the human factor in the explanation of landscape formation. Moreover, nowadays a distinction is made between time-dependent and time-independent processes. In the latter, the processes do not lead to morphological changes, but merely contribute to the continuation of an equilibrium situation in the landscape system.

Davis paid much attention to improving the quality of geography education. He wanted to get rid of the one-sided focus on factual knowledge and the insufficient use of generalizable concepts. According to him, geography should be defined as a general earth science, in which generalizations about the relationship between inorganic and organic nature should be central.

Davis was an exceptionally gifted teacher and also a very demanding one. He trained a large number of geographers who became responsible for the further development of American geography at various universities in the United States. His students included Mark Jefferson, Isaiah Bowman and Ellsworth Huntington, among others.

Davis realized that the development of American geography would be furthered by the founding of a professional organization. Partly at his urging, the AAG (Association of American Geographers) was created in 1904 with Davis as its first president.

Numerous were the (international) field trips he organized. In 1911 he organized the "Liverpool-Rome Pilgrimage" for an international company of 32 people. In 1912 Davis taught for some time at the Sorbonne in Paris and he seized this opportunity to organize the famous 'Transcontinental Excursion of the American Geographical Society'. Participating in this grand excursion were 43 European geographers (from 13 different countries). They were accompanied on their journey through the United States by a large number of American geographers. The trip lasted almost two months. A special train had been made available for the occasion. This excursion was the start of years of intensive contacts between American and European geographers.


  1. William Morris Davis
  2. William Morris Davis
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Chorley, Richard J.; Beckinsale, Robert P.; Dunn, Antony J. (2005) [1973]. "Chapter Twenty-Two". The History of the Study of Landforms. Vol. Two. Taylor & Francis e-Library. p. 569.
  5. Reginald A. Daly, S. 268.
  6. W.M. Davis: Die Erklärende Beschreibung der Landformen, Leipzig/Berlin 1912, Widmung
  7. Carl Troll: Jaeger, Fritz. In: Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). Band 10, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1974, ISBN 3-428-00191-5, S. 276 (Digitalisat).
  8. Members of the American Academy. Listed by election year, 1850–1899 (PDF). Abgerufen am 24. September 2015
  9. ^ [a b] Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online-ID: biography/William-Morris-Davistopic/Britannica-Online, omnämnd som: William Morris Davis, läst: 9 oktober 2017.[källa från Wikidata]
  10. ^ Bibliographisches Institut & F. A. Brockhaus & Wissen Media Verlag (red.), Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Brockhaus Enzyklopädie-ID: davis-william-morris, omnämnd som: William Morris Davis, läst: 9 oktober 2017.[källa från Wikidata]
  11. ^ Aleksandr M. Prochorov (red.), ”Дейвис Уильям Моррис”, Большая советская энциклопедия : [в 30 т.], tredje utgåvan, Stora ryska encyklopedin, 1969, läst: 28 september 2015.[källa från Wikidata]
  12. ^ S. Piastra, Una poco conosciuta escursione geografica internazionale lungo le vallate del Santerno, del Senio e del Lamone (1908), “Studi Romagnoli” LVIII, (2007), pp. 627-639.

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