William Morris Davis

William Morris Davis bigraphy, stories - American geographer, geologist, and meteorologist, often called the "father of American geography"

William Morris Davis : biography

February 12, 1850 – February 5, 1934

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 Quaker family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son of Edward M. Davis and Maria Mott Davis (a daughter of the women’s advocate Lucretia Mott). He graduated from Harvard University in 1869 and received a Master of Engineering in the following year.

He then worked in Córdoba, Argentina for three years, then after working as an assistant to Nathaniel Shaler, he became an instructor in geology at Harvard, in 1879. (Davis never completed his PhD.) He married Ellen B. Warner of Springfield, Massachusetts in the same year.

His most influential scientific contribution was the cycle of erosion, first defined around 1884, which was a model of how rivers create landforms. His cycle of erosion suggests that (larger) rivers have three main sections: upper course, middle course, and lower course – each of which has distinct landforms and other properties associated with it.

Though it was a crucial early contribution to geomorphology, many of Davis’ theories regarding landscape evolution, sometimes known as Davisian geomorphology, have been heavily criticized by modern geomorphologists. Also criticized were his tendency to go after and discredit geomorphologists who disagreed with his ideas and methods. In fact, until he retired, he had the study of landscape evolution almost monopolized.

In modern times, the accusation of someone using Davisian geomorphology is sometimes used when attempting to discredit the scientific papers of others.

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. After his first wife died, Davis married Mary M. Wyman of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1914, and, after her death, he married Lucy L. Tennant of 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.


  • Geographical Essays (Boston: Ginn, 1909).


  • "Geographic methods in geologic investigations", National Geographic Magazine 1: pp. 11-26 (1888)
  • "The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania", National Geographic Magazine 1: pp. 183-253 (1889)
  • "The geographical cycle", Geographical Journal, vol. 14, pp. 481-504 (1899)
  • "The Physical Geography of the Lands", Popular Science Monthly 2: pp. 157-170 (1900)