Davis, William Morris

American Geomorphologist

William Morris Davis is a major historical figure in geomorphology, the scientific study of landforms. Davis is especially known for his theory of landscape development—called the geographical cycle—that was the leading geomorphic theory from 1890 to 1950. He is also considered the father of American academic geography because of his role in establishing geography as an independent professional field. Today, geomorphology constitutes part of the subject matter of both geography and geology , and this dual affiliation exists largely because throughout his career Davis maintained strong ties to both disciplines.

Landscape Evolution

Davis attended Harvard University, where he studied geology (bachelor of science in 1869) and mining engineering (master of science in 1870) at a time when geography was taught only as part of other subjects. In 1878, Davis was hired by Harvard's geology department to teach physical geography courses, including landforms and meteorology .

Combining field observations in Montana in the summer of 1883 with his knowledge of the geomorphic literature, Davis began developing his theory of landscape evolution. He theorized that the geomorphic appearance of a given landscape is controlled by the combination of the following three variables.

  • Structure: Structure involves rock resistance to weathering and erosion, and whether strata (rock layers) have been deformed into relief elements (areas of variable elevation) like fault blocks or folds.
  • Process: Landforming processes include weathering as well as erosion and deposition by such agents as gravity and streams.
  • Stage: Youth, maturity, and old age constitute the principal stages of development, an indication of how long the processes have been acting.

Davis first developed his theory for stream-dominated, humid, midlatitude settings, but geographical cycles were eventually proposed for other environments. The great popularity of the geographical cycle propelled Davis into the forefront of landform studies and the emerging discipline of geography. Throughout his career Davis remained a professor in Harvard University's geology department and a tireless champion of geography.

SEE ALSO Stream Erosion and Landscape Development .

Dorothy Sack


Chorley, Richard J., Robert P. Beckinsale, and Antony J. Dunn. "The Life and Work of William Morris Davis." London, U.K.: Methuen, 1973.

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