William Morris Davis

The Father of American Geography

Geologic forms in Arches National Park, Utah, USA
Davis was a pioneer in geomorpology. Pawel Toczynski / Getty Images

William Morris Davis is often called the "father of American geography" for his work in not only helping to establish geography as an academic discipline but also for his advancement of physical geography and the development of geomorphology.

Life and Career

Davis was born in Philadelphia in 1850. At the age of 19, he earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University and one year later earned his masters degree in engineering.

Davis then spent three years working at Argentina's meteorological observatory and subsequently returned to Harvard to study geology and physical geography.

In 1878, Davis was appointed an instructor in physical geography at Harvard and by 1885 became a full professor. Davis continued to teach at Harvard until his retirement in 1912. Following his retirement, he occupied several visiting scholar positions at universities across the United States. Davis died in Pasadena, California in 1934.


William Morris Davis was very excited about the discipline of geography; he worked hard to increase its recognition. In the 1890s, Davis was an influential member of a committee that helped to establish geography standards in the public schools. Davis and the committee felt that geography needed to be treated as a general science in primary and secondary schools and these ideas were adopted. Unfortunately, after a decade of the "new" geography, it slipped back to being rote knowledge of place names and eventually disappeared into the bowels of social studies.

Davis also helped to build geography up at the university level. In addition to training some of America's foremost geographers of the twentieth century (such as Mark Jefferson, Isaiah Bowman, and Ellsworth Huntington), Davis helped to found the Association of American Geographers (AAG). Recognizing the need for an academic organization composed of academics trained in geography, Davis met with other geographers and formed the AAG in 1904.

Davis served as the AAG's first president in 1904 and was reelected in 1905, and ultimately served a third term in 1909. Though Davis was very influential in the development of geography as a whole, he is probably best known for his work in geomorphology.


Geomorphology is the study of the earth's landforms. William Morris Davis founded this subfield of geography. Though at his time the traditional idea of the development of landforms was through the great biblical flood, Davis and others began to believe that other factors were responsible for shaping the earth.

Davis developed a theory of landform creation and erosion, which he called the "geographical cycle." This theory is more commonly known as the "cycle of erosion," or more properly, the "geomorphic cycle." His theory explained that mountains and landforms are created, mature, and then become old.

He explained that the cycle begins with the uplift of mountains. Rivers and streams begin to create V-shaped valleys among the mountains (the stage called "youth"). During this first stage, the relief is steepest and most irregular. Over time, the streams are able to carve wider valleys ("maturity") and then begin to meander, leaving only gently rolling hills ("old age").

Finally, all that is left is a flat, level plain at the lowest elevation possible (called the "base level.") This plain was called by Davis a "peneplain," which means "almost a plain" for a plain is actually a completely flat surface). Then, "rejuvenation" occurs and there is another uplift of mountains and the cycle continues.

Though Davis' theory is not entirely accurate, it was quite revolutionary and outstanding at its time and helped to modernize physical geography and create the field of geomorphology. The real world is not quite as orderly as Davis' cycles and, certainly, erosion occurs during the uplift process. However, Davis' message was communicated quite well to other scientists through the excellent sketches and illustrations that were included in Davis' publications.

In all, Davis published over 500 works though he never earned his Ph.D.

Davis was certainly one of the greatest academic geographers of the century. He is not only responsible for that which he accomplished during his lifetime, but also for the outstanding work done across geography by his disciples.