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President Herbert John Davis

President Herbert John Davis

Herbert John Davis was born on May 24, 1893 in Northamptonshire, England, where he received his elementary and secondary education. He attended Oxford University, St. John’s College, from which he graduated in 1914. He then served in France and Belgium during WWI and in 1919 returned to Oxford to earn his A.M. In 1922, Davis married Gertrude Lucas of Opladen, Rheinland, Germany but she died tragically just six years later. In 1930, Davis married Gladys Wookey of Toronto and the couple had two daughters, Charlotte Elisabeth Ann and Jane.

In 1920, Davis acquired a position at the University of Leeds where he taught for two years. He then moved to the University of Toronto where he remained for sixteen years. He was hired as an Associate Professor of English, and was later promoted to a full Professor. He also served as chair the English Department at Toronto. In 1938 Davis accepted a position as Chair of the English department at Cornell University. In 1939, Davis succeeded William Allan Neilson as president of Smith College and he assumed this role for the 1940-1941 school year. Davis served as the fourth president of Smith College until 1949 when he returned to Oxford as a reader in textual criticism. Davis retired from Oxford in 1960.

During his academic career Davis made several notable contributions to academia. Following his passion for poetry and prose, Davis became a world renowned expert on Jonathan Swift and wrote several books on his work including Swift’s View of Poetry (1931) and Stella, a Gentlewoman of the Eighteenth Century (1942). The latter is an account of the friendship that existed between Swift and Esther Johnson. Davis also edited the fourteen volume work, The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift (1939-68). Davis’ distinguished literary contributions were well recognized and he received several honorary degrees including a Doctorate of Laws from Amherst College in 1940. In addition to his enthusiasm for the English language, Davis was extremely socially conscious and particularly concerned with WWII raging overseas. Perhaps his most memorable act of charity was providing a home to five British refugee children for several years during the war. Many of his colleagues and friends followed his lead and opened their doors to children in need. Davis died on March 28, 1967.

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