William Baldwin Davis, 1870 - 1939

by Brian Stevenson
last updated May, 2021

William B. Davis was a skilled amateur microscopist who produced good-quality microscope slides during the first decade or so of the twentieth century (Figure 1). He was a member and officer of the Sullivant Moss Society, the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and the Mineralogical/Geological and Biological/Microscopical Sections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Figure 1. Microscope slides that were made by William B. Davis. Two are dated 1905, and another is from 1908. Davis lived in Philadelphia until ca. 1912 (see Figure 3). From the author's collection or adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.


Figure 2. Details of a gametophore (reproductive organ) of the liverwort Lophocolea heterophylla (variable-leaved crestwort), mounted in 1908 by William B. Davis (see Figure 1). Photographed with a 10x objective lens and a C-mounted digital SLR camera on a Leitz Ortholux II microscope.


Figure 3. Gill and leg of a "small water larva", mounted by William B. Davis in 1905 (see Figure 1). Photographed with a 3.5x objective lens and a C-mounted digital SLR camera on a Leitz Ortholux II microscope.


William B. Davis was born on March 10, 1870, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third surviving child of Paul and Henrietta (née Duy) Davis. Paul was a financially successful oil merchant. After giving birth to three more children, Henrietta died in December, 1878. Paul remarried in March, 1879, to Loenesene Dungan, who died only three years later. Paul did not marry again, but instead relied upon an unmarried sister and his widowed mother to help raise the six children.

William studied the law, and began practicing in Philadelphia around 1893. In 1898, he married Frances Clarke. The pair had one child, Laura.

It is not clear how or when William Davis was introduced to microscopy as a hobby, but slides illustrated in Figure 1 (above) indicate that he was a skilled mounter by 1905. In that same year, he wrote a short article for The Amateur Naturalist:

"The naturalist and the microscope.

A great many people, and not a few naturalists, have an idea that the purchase of a good working compound microscope means the expenditure of considerable money. An instrument that will fulfill all the requirements of an amateur can now be purchased from the makers as low as $10, and better yet, if one is smart-a first class microscope, which probably cost new say $50 to $75, can often be picked up second hand for a trifle. Nearly all the dealers keep a list of second hand instruments for sale.

For a number of years the writer has obtained great and increasing pleasure, particularly during the long winter evenings, from the views of the hidden world which the microscope reveals. To give an idea of the wonders to be thus found, one only has to consult the many books written on the subject. Every public library, as a rule, contains some-sufficient to say that there is hardly an object, no matter how insignificant, that does not become doubly interesting when sufficiently magnified and its true structure brought out.

Take a walk some summer day with a microscopist of some experience and you will be greatly astonished at his observations of the minute things in this world of ours-things that heretofore have entirely escaped your notice - but none the less important for being small. It was from watching a friend one spring afternoon collecting material for the succeeding winter's study that caused at least one person to become an enthusiastic microscopist. That walk still stands out fresh in my memory, although taken years ago. We had not proceeded far into the woods when my companion reached down and picked up a small twig; this, when examined with a hand-lens, disclosed the presence of any number of little fungi, closely resembling minute mushrooms or toadstools and known as the myxomycetes. If the appearance of the various members of this family is curious, what can we say of their life history? At one stage moving about, every micron an animal, and at another surely a vegetable.

A little further into the woods, and the practiced eye of my friend detected the filaments of Nitella in a small stream of water. When the stems of this plant are examined under the moderate power of a compound microscope, we see the protoplasm in each elongated cell (sometimes the cell over an inch in length) flowing majestically up one side, making a graceful turn at the end and flowing down the other side, and carrying along in its current the starch and other granules. The small piece of Nitella, which was carried home in the folds of a newspaper upon this occasion, was placed in a Mason fruit jar filled with water and lived and flourished without a change of water the entire fall and winter, and furnished amusement and instruction upon many occasions. The same fruit jar becomes the home in turn of countless beings-each with an interesting life history.

One piece of good advice in closing - let the prospective purchaser of a microscope perfect himself in the use of the lower powers before attempting the use of the high power objectives. Adherence to this will avoid many disappointments and much confusion".


In 1909, Davis published an a brief note in The Bryologist on "Farrant's medium for mounting mosses":

"Dr. R.H. Ward once wrote that for some objects of microscopical interest Farrant's Medium nearly accomplishes the paradox of enabling one to mount specimens without the trouble of mounting them. It is certain, however, that if more workers with the microscope know just how satisfactory this gum and glycerine medium was, that it would be in more demand.

A great many of us are too busy to make permanent glycerine or balsam mounts. Frequently when working on the mosses they are examined in glycerine; and if of sufficient interest, are laid aside without being sealed, but in this condition they quickly spoil. No further labor than mounting in water or glycerine is entailed by using the Farrant's Medium. The advantages are many. In a few hours the gum hardens at the edges and the slide can be cleaned without risk of disturbing the specimen. In fact such slides can be put away for years just as mounted, and then extra fluid can be scraped away with a knife, when desired".


That same year, The Bryologist also published Davis' paper on "Method of making photo-micrographs of mosses and hepatics". The paper was a summation of a talk he presented in 1908 to the Sullivant Moss Society in Baltimore (The Sullivant Moss Society is know the American Bryological and Lichenological Society).

Also in 1909, "The Sullivant Moss Society having been honored by an invitation to send a delegate to the ceremony of Dedication of the New Hall of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia on December 10, 1909, Mr. William B. Davis was appointed. The delegates and specially invited guests, in academic dress as required, met in a nearby church and marched two by two to the place of dedication. Our delegate had the honor of marching immediately after Mr. Andrew Carnegie, who had contributed $100,000 to help build the Hall. This invitation is regarded by Mr. Davis as a recognition of the place which our Society holds in the list of scientific bodies, since only the acknowledged learned societies had been requested to send a representative".

Davis moved to Ocean City, New Jersey during late 1912 (Figure 4). Nonetheless, he remained an active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, serving as Treasurer of the Mineralogical and Geological Section as late as 1919.

Davis served briefly in the U.S. military during World War I, being posted to La Jolla, California. He returned to the Ocean City area after the war. William Davis died on August 31, 1939.

Figure 4. Advertisement from the "Ocean City Sentinel", November 7, 1912.



The Bryologist (1910) "Sullivant Moss Society members … Davis, Mr. Wm. B. 2006 South College Ave., Philadelphia, Pa.", page 21

The Bryologist (1910) Sullivant Moss Society notes, page 46

Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia (1909) "Members … Davis, Mr. Wm. B. 2006 South College Ave., Philadelphia, Pa.", Vol. 7

Davis, William B. (1905) The naturalist and the microscope, The American Naturalist, Vol. 2, pages 64-65

Davis, William B. (1909) Farrant's medium for mounting mosses, The Bryologist, Vol. 12, page 47

Davis, William B. (1909) Method of making photo-micrographs of mosses and hepatics, The Bryologist, Vol. 12, page 8

Ocean City Directory (1911) "Davis William B (Frances C), lawyer, h 400 Atlantic ave", page 1156

Ocean City Sentinel (1912) Advertisement from William B. Davis, page 1

Philadelphia City Directory (1892) "Davis W. Baldwin, student, 635 Walnut, h 2009 Girard av", page 456

Philadelphia City Directory (1894) "Davis Wm B, lawyer, 603 Chestnut, h 2009 Girard av", page 471

Philadelphia City Directory (1899) "Davis Wm B, lawyer, 911 Stephen Girard Bldg, h 2232 N 17th", page 537

Philadelphia City Directory (1901) "Davis William Baldwin, lawyer & notary public, 1421 Filbert, h 2154 Sedley", page 596

Philadelphia City Directory (1904) "Davis William B, lawyer, 604 Land Title bldg. h 2006 S College av", page 218

Philadelphia City Directory (1911) "Davis Wm B (Morris & Davis) h 2019 Girard av", page 476

Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1914) Reports of the Sections, "Other communications were made by Messrs. S.L. Schumo, J.W. Palmer, W.H. Van Sickel, William B. Davis, and several visitors", Vol. 66, page 664

Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1919) Mineralogical and Geological Section, "William B. Davis Treasurer", page 314

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