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PROFESSOR WILLIAM MORRIS DAVIS, GEOGRAPHER (1850-1934)

The 1d red roo on map of Australia stamped wrapper (H. & G. E-2) which is postmarked WILLIAMSTOWN/ 215A 30 SE 14/VIC has a manuscript Printed Matter and is addressed to Professor W.M. Davis, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. U.S.A. The name of the sender has not been identified, but immediately below the name there appears to be written 'Survey Egypt' (Figure 1).

William Morris Davis was a famous American geographer, geologist and meteorologist who began his career in geography at the age of twenty in Argentina. He was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on February 12, 1850 and died in Pasadena CA on 9 February 1934. He was the son of a Philadelphia business man, Edward M. Davis and his wife Martha Mott who were Quakers. The father was expelled from the Society of Friends for enlisting in the Union army during the civil war. In 1879 Davis married Ellen Warner and after her death he married Mary Wyman; after her death he married Lucy Tennant, who survived him.

He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1869 and a Master of Engineering in 1870, both at Harvard University, and as has been remarked upon by others, he never earned a doctoral degree. From 1870 he spent 3 years at Cordoba, Argentina as a meteorologist in the National Observatory, followed by a post as an assistant on the Northern Pacific Survey of the USA in 1874. In 1877 he returned to Harvard as an assistant to the Professor of Geology and became an instructor in the department in 1879. He partook in the Northern Transcontinental survey of the USA as an assistant geologist in 1883.

In 1885 he became an assistant professor in physical geography at Harvard, followed by a full professorship in 1890. In 1898 he was appointed Sturgis Hooper professor of Geology at Harvard, but by the time the wrapper was mailed to him in 1914, he had become Emeritus Professor of Geology in 1912. He remained very active academically in his retirement, with several visiting lectureships at other U.S. universities, right up to 1931 when he was at Columbia University, New York.

He has been called "the father of American geography" and he founded the Association of American Geographers in 1904, becoming its first President. His ideas organized the principles of modern meteorology and contributed to significant studies in geology. In 1889 he wrote "The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania" which was the first paper of it's kind in America. Within this article he presented the "cycle of erosion", and although his theory is considered overly simplistic to-day, it was a crucial early contribution to geomorphology.

Davis had associations with Australia, for he made field studies in Australia, and he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne. Two images of Davis, one early in his career, the other later, are shown in Figures 2 & 3.

I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Michelle Gachette, Reference Assistant, Harvard University Archives for providing 2 obituaries of Professor Davis.


 
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