Academic History- Davis' contributions cover the separate field of geography,
geology, and meteorology. He had an emphasis throughout his career on education in
both the high school level as well as the college level. Davis' most influential
concept was the "cycle of erosion". He worked on refining and detailing this
concept for most of his professional career. Many of his early publications layed
the foundation for this concept but it is the essay "the rivers of pennsylvania,1889"
where he first states and defines the concept.
It is clear that Davis was influenced by Darwin's organic evolution theory. In a 1883 writing he states "it seems most probable, that the many pre-existent streams in each river basin concentrated their water in a single channel of overflow, and that this one channel survives- a fine example of natural selection."
He is noted in bibliographies reviewed that he was an avid sponsor of bringing professionals together. This is supported most notable by his involvement as one of the founders of the Association of American Geographers. Something of which I have been puzzled over however is the lack of mention of his involvement with the National Geographic Society(NGS). He is given credit as having an article or essay in the NGS magazine in each of its first nine years. Also these articles seem to have been some of his preeminent, most influential works. He is also listed as one of the original members of the NGS.
Honorary Degrees from: The Cape of Good Hope University 1905; Greifswald University 1906; Christiana University(Oslo) 1911; Melbourne University 1914. Was decorated Chevalier Legion of Honor(France) 1912.
Memberships/Leadership in Organizations: Founding member of Geological Society of America(pres. 1906 & 1911); Founding member of Association of American Geographers(pres. 1904,1905,1909); member of American Academy of Arts and Science; member of American Philosophical Society; Member National Academy of Sciences; member Imperial Society of Natural History(Moscow); member of the New Zealand Institute; Science and America(assoc. Editor); member American Association for the Advancement of Science(v-pres. 1903) Geographical Societies of: Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Rome, Buda-pest, Leipzig, Greifswald, Frankfurt, Geneva, Petrograd, Amsterdam, Neuchatel, Copenhagen, Stockholm, New York and Chicago. The total list of is memberships honorary and otherwise is well over thirty memberships strong. He is also listed as having 501 titles in his bibliography with dates spanning between 1880 and 1938.
Professional Time Line
1869- Bachelor of Science degree from Harvard University(Lawrence Scientific School)
1870- Master of Engineering from Harvard University
1870- Spends three years at Cordoba, Argentina as meteorologist in national observatory
1874-Assistant to Raphael Pumpelly on the Northern Pacific Survey
1877- Assistant to Nathaniel Shaler professor of geology at Harvard University
1879-Instructor of geology at Harvard University
1882&1911- Lecturer Lowell Institute
1883- Assistant geologist Northern Transcontinental Survey
1885-Appointed assistant professor of physical geography at Harvard University
1890-Full professorship in physical geography at Harvard University
1890-1915- Assistant geologist U.S. Geological Survey
1898-Appointed Sturgis Hooper professor of geology at Harvard University
1903-Physiographer to Pumpelly's Carnegie Institute survey of Turkestan
1908- Visiting professor at Berlin University
1911- Visiting professor at University of Paris
1911- Lead 9 week geographical pilgrimage from Wales to Italy
1912- Became Emeritus professor at Harvard University
1912- Organized an 8 week transcontinental expedition of the American Geographical Society
1925-26 Visiting lecturer Western Colleges
1927-30- Visiting lecturer at University of California at Berkeley
1927-31- Visiting lecturer at the University of Arizona
1927-32- Visiting lecturer at Stanford University
1930- Visiting lecturer at the University of Oregon
1931-32 Visiting lecturer at the California Institute of Technology
1931- Visiting lecturer at Columbia University
Professional Contribution- Often called "the father of American geography". He was a professor of physical geography at Harvard, teaching many of the great American geographers to follow him. These students included Albert Perry Brigham, Richard Dodge, Ellsworth Huntington, Mark Jefferson, and Isaiah Bowman.
He founded the Association of American Geographers in 1904. He became the first president of the AAG, and shaped the early years of the society. Davis wanted the AAG to be of high intellectual standing, and a contribution to geography, such as fieldwork or a publication, was required for membership.
Davis called for an increase in geography curriculum at universities. He saw a break between school geography and professional geography. He wrote a series of papers giving advice on how to teach geography from grade school all the way up to college. To emphasize education he lead the Conference on Geography in 1894.
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".
His ideas organized the principles of modern meteorology and contributed to significant studies in geology. Serving as president of the Geological Society of America Davis became an important figure in field research.
Davis, William Morris. 1888. "Geographic methods in geologic investigations",
"National Geographic Magazine" 1: 11-26.
The article starts with a definition of geography as "the account of present forms of the earth". Then he states that this definition is limited. The definition should include description and statistical account of the present surface of the earth, but also include a systematic classification of the features, viewed as the result of processes, acting for various periods, at different ages, on diverse structures. He sites two events that create an advance in geographic study. First the Pennsylvania surveys in 1840. Second the surveys of the west 1870. The advance is from the old school where structure determines form, to the new school where slow "form producing" processes create a sequence of forms. He uses an analogy with an oak tree. An individual is not able to witness a specific tree continually grow. But the individual can make reference to seeing the tree at different stages. Then apply the form development of the oak to other similar trees. This analogy examples how our understanding of the earth's surface features should be. His analogy of the oak does not hold true for structures which go through a repetition of the same process. He mentions an example of a stream which course was changed by glacial deposits and began eroding a portion of land which had reached its base level.
He applies the ideas to how they can be received in schools and mentions the importance of having a base set of standard forms, to study from, for geographers and students.These would be used when applying knowledge of familiar areas to new areas. He also encourages the use of models in teaching. By saying "Good illustrations, photos, and maps are becoming more common; but the most important means of teaching will be found in models."
He finishes by saying physical geography is too largely descriptive and statistical. It holds promise for wide usefulness when its forms are systematically studied and its principles are broadly applied. The essential element here is the systematic relation of form to structure, base level, and time. He suggests a new term might be Systematic Geography.
Davis, William Morris. 1889. "The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania", "National Geographic Magazine" 1: 183-253.
In this essay of 70 pages Mr. Davis first sets the scene for the whole essay
with an introduction explaining certain assumptions made in the essay and the
organization of the essay. To set the scene he cites a description of the region by
Lewis Evans in 1755. He also describes and comments on previous work done on this
area by Peschel, Tietze, Lowl, Philippson, Lesley.
The second chapter of the essay gives a geological history the region and describes the formations. Many figures and sketches occupy this portion of the essay to graphically give reference and clarify how the structures were developed.
In the third chapter he introduces the concepts which he is famous for. The complete cycle of river life: Youth, adolescence, Maturity, and Old Age. He examines the history of an ideal river life in order to study the Pennsylvania region. The cycle is started by what he calls an Original river the definition is a stream starting on a new land. After becoming established the stream then starts the cycle. After describing each stage of the cycle he indicates that a cycle can be changed by changes in the structure of the landscape.
With the last chapter of the essay he traces the development of streams through the geologic history of pennsylvania. By making comparisons between streams in contrasting development with similar geologic structure. He defends the different stages of stream development found in various parts of Pennsylvania. Although thought of today as a work which signifies a period of time in geographic development his systematic approach to organizing streams is still used as a fundamental basis for stream development.
Davis, William Morris. 1900. "The Physical Geography of the Lands", "Popular
Science Monthly". 2:157-170.
This article describes the physical features of the world known up to that time. It discusses the advances regarding the study of the earth, and mentions some geographers who helped make these advances. This article describes how the various physical features of the world interact with each other, and shows Davis' passion for physical geography.
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This page is maintained by the Department of Geography and Meteorology at Valparaiso University. Please send comments and corrections to Jon T. Kilpinen at
Last revised 25 March 1997 by JTK.
Last revised 25 March 1997 by JTK.