William Morris Davis was born February 12, 1850, in Philadelphia. His father was a successful Philadelphia businessman and young Davis grew up in comfortable and secure surroundings. His early education was typical of the period. His mother taught him at home until he was eleven at which time he entered a private school. In 1866 at age 16 Davis enrolled at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School. In 1869 he earned a Bachelor of Science degree magna cum laude and a year later he received an engineering degree. Although Davis early displayed a high aptitude for scientific and engineering subjects, he returned to Philadelphia in 1873 and entered his father's business. The life of a businessman soon proved unsatisfactory to the young man and in 1876 Davis returned to Harvard to pursue the study of geology under Nathaniel S Shaler. In 1877-78 he took a trip around the world studying geological formations and meeting his colleagues in other countries. Upon his return Davis was appointed an instructor of geology at Harvard. The appointment marked the beginning of a teaching career at Harvard that lasted until 1912. Davis' academic career was highly successful and reached its high point in 1898 when he was appointed to the Sturgis-Hooper Professorship of Geology. In 1912 Davis resigned from the Harvard faculty. His elevation to emeritus status did not mean the end of his research, writing, and active participation in geological and geographical circles. According to Herman R. Friss, Davis' biographer in the Dictionary of American Biography, it was during the 36 years between his appointment as Sturgis-Hooper professor in 1898 and his death in 1934 that Davis, "...profoundly affected the science of geology and geography."
After his retirement from Harvard, Davis traveled widely at home and abroad. In 1908-09 and again in 1911-12 he taught in Germany and France. Upon returning home in 1912 he lead a cross country excursion of leading American geologists and geographers. During World War I Davis served as chairman of the geography committee of the National Research Council. Beginning in approximately 1924 his interest centered on California where he studied oceanography and coral formations and lectured at various universities. Davis was active until the end of his life. He died on February 5, 1934, at Pasadena during the National Academy of Science annual meeting.
In 1894 Davis published Elementary Meteorology. Although the work, which was essentially a textbook, did not contain any new basic science knowledge, it did bring organization and refinement to a large body of previously uncoordinated knowledge. Elementary Meteorology became the standard textbook on the subject for many years.
Davis' international fame as a creator of new knowledge rests chiefly on his contributions to geology and geomorphology. In 1912, after he had resigned from Harvard and while teaching in Germany, Davis published Die erklaerende Beschreibung der Landformen (A Reasoned Description of Landforms). The work represented a summation of Davis 1 forty year study of the shape of the earth and the evolution of the earth's forms. Employing the knowledge of meteorology, geography, and geology Davis offered an explanation of the genesis, development, and classification of landforms. His system, which could be applied to the topography of the entire earth, became known as the Davisian or American school of geomorphological thought. In this work and subsequent studies Davis created new doctrines and concepts (for example the concept of "erosion cycle") to explain the shaping and forming of the earth. In so doing he opened new areas of study for geologists and geographers. According to Reginald A Daly, the distinguised geologist, Davis transformed the study of geography in America into a true earth science.
Davis' contributions to the earth sciences earned him the esteem and recognition of his peers. Among his awards were the Cullum Medal of the American Geographical Society (1903), the Academy of Natural Sciences' Hayden Medal, and the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. Leading scientific societies both here and abroad, among them the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Deutsche Meteorologische Gesellschaft, elected him to membership. - NRHP