Katharine Bement Davis

Katharine Bement Davis (January 15, 1860 – December 10, 1935) was an American progressive era social reformer and criminologist who became the first woman to head a major New York City agency when she was appointed Correction Commissioner on January 1, 1914.[1][2][3]

Katharine Bement Davis
Katharine Bement Davis in 1915.jpg
Davis in 1913
Born(1860-01-15)January 15, 1860
DiedDecember 10, 1935(1935-12-10) (aged 75)
EducationRochester Free Academy
Alma materVassar College, Barnard College, Chicago University (first female Fellow in Political Science-Economics to earn a Ph.D.)
OccupationProgressive era social reformer and criminologist
EmployerDunkirk Academy, Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls, Philadelphia's College Settlement House, New York State Reformatory for Women, New York City Department of Correction, New York City Bureau of Social Hygiene
Known forCorrection Commissioner; the first woman to head a major New York City agency; research in female sexuality
Parent(s)Oscar Bill Davis and Frances Freeman
RelativesTwo brothers, two sisters
AwardsDesignated "one of the three most distinguished women in America" by the Panama-Pacific Exposition; honorary degrees from Mount Holyoke College, Western Reserve and Yale

The Panama-Pacific Exposition designated her one of the three most distinguished women in America.[1][4] Davis is remembered for her pioneering science-based prison reform and groundbreaking research about female sexuality.[1]


She was born in Buffalo, New York, on January 15, 1860, to Oscar Bill Davis and Frances Freeman. She was the oldest of five children—three girls and two boys.[1][5] Katharine's mother Frances was a strong proponent of women's rights and a zealous advocate for women's suffrage.[5]

The Davis family lived in Dunkirk, New York, during most of her childhood. Both of her parents were active in community organizations in Dunkirk.[5] Oscar Davis worked for Bradstreet company, and when Katharine was seventeen he relocated to Rochester, New York, to manage a regional office there.[1][5]

Education and early careersEdit

In 1879, Davis graduated from Rochester Free Academy, a public high school. Since her family was unable to afford the tuition for college, she taught at Dunkirk Academy. While at Dunkirk Academy, she established a women's equality club and led a women's literacy group.[1]

After teaching high school chemistry for ten years, Davis saved enough money to continue her schooling full-time. In 1890, she enrolled in Vassar College, a center of progressive education for women. Davis combined her interests in science and social reform by studying food chemistry and nutritional studies. Taking this course of study gave Davis the opportunity for career in a public health agency after graduation.[1]

After graduating from Vassar, Davis continued her studies at Columbia University's Barnard College, a separate women's college within the university, while teaching at Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls. She studied the chemistry of food.

While studying at Barnard, Davis managed a project to develop a model home for New York State's display at the Chicago World Fair. As a result of the success of the home display, she was offered a job running a settlement house in Philadelphia.[1]

Philadelphia's College Settlement HouseEdit

The settlement house movement began in the late 19th century to socialize the poor and uneducated residents that occupied immigrant neighborhoods in a city to American values and customs. In the United States, "college settlements" were run by young women graduates of progressive colleges who as "workers" moved into a neighborhood house in order to Americanize the local residents.[6]

The College Settlement on Philadelphia's St. Mary's Street served a district of indigent blacks and Russian immigrants. Davis moved into the house as "head worker". While in Philadelphia, Davis worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, who was then at the University of Pennsylvania conducting groundbreaking research on blacks in urban America. Davis noted in the Settlement's annual report that "the investigation into the condition of the colored people of . . . the seventh ward which contains about 10,000 Negroes, nearly one fourth the entire number in the city" would be carried out "by means of house-to-house canvass."[1]


Davis moved to Chicago, Illinois, to return to school at Chicago University where she was to be the first female Fellow in Political Science-Economics to earn a Ph.D.

Corrections careerEdit

Bedford Hills ReformatoryEdit

The New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills, New York, opened in May 1901 with Davis as the superintendent.[3] Besides the administration building, the campus included "a reception hall, four cottages, a laundry building, a powerhouse, a gate house, and a stable". The reception hall had two wings, one wing modeled after a traditional prison with three tiers of 24 cells each, and the other wing contained rooms accommodating 42 inmates.[1]

Pre-sentencing evaluationsEdit

In 1909 Davis arranged for the New York Public Education Association to do a psychological testing study at Bedford. The results showed that serious mental problems existed in a significant number of the female inmates. This result indicated a disconnect between the original focus of the reformatory and the population of inmates that it was serving. In 1910 Davis advocated for judges to have access to pre-sentencing background research and evaluations so that they can made appropriate placements. Davis wrote up her ideas in a pamphlet, A Rational Plan for the Treatment of Women Convicted in the Courts of New York City. that was widely distributed to people affiliated with criminal justice system in New York City.[1]

The Prison Association of New York recognized the reforms that Davis made at Bedford Hills saying that "the reformatory is becoming perhaps the most scientific institution of its kind in the world."[1]

Reform-minded Mayor John Purroy Mitchel selected Davis to head the Correction Commission making her the first woman to lead an agency in New York City on January 1, 1914.[1][3] Based on her relationship with Mitchel and his associates, Davis was on the Progressive party's 1914 slate for State Constitutional Convention seat, making her the first woman to run for a New York statewide office on a major party ticket.[1]

Bureau of Social HygieneEdit

The Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York City was an agency incorporated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1913 for "the study, amelioration, and prevention of those social conditions, crimes, and diseases which adversely affect the well-being of society, with special reference to prostitution and the evils associated therewith."[7] Rockefeller established the agency as a result of his appointment in 1911 to a special grand jury to investigate white slavery in New York City. The Bureau's work was influenced by the view that there was a biological basis for crime. During the Bureau's early years the main focus was on prostitution, vice, and political corruption. During later years, the Bureau shifted its emphasis towards criminology and the control of crime. The Bureau stopped granting new appropriations in 1934, and by 1937 all prior commitments were completed.[7]

In 1918 Davis became the head of the Bureau.[1]

Sexuality researchEdit

At the Bureau of Social Hygiene, Davis arranged for ground-breaking research on women's sexuality on "normal" females. These were women whose names were found from club memberships directories and college alumnae lists. They were surveyed about "auto-erotic practices, the frequency of sexual desire, homosexual experiences, use of contraceptives, frequency of sexual intercourse, pre-marital and extra-marital sexual experiences."[1][8]


Compulsory sterilization was seen by many as a way to reduce the incidence of mental illness and mental retardation in the general population of the United States. Davis was a eugenicist and during her tenure as General Secretary, she affiliated the Bureau with leaders in the field of eugenics such as Harry Laughlin, Charles Davenport and E. S. Gosney, director of The Human Betterment Foundation in California. In 1924, Davis accepted a position on the Committee on Eugenics of the United States' Advisory Council.[9]


At the end of 1927 her contract was not extended and she retired. On February 2, 1928, the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom was filled with Progressive Era reformers to honor Davis at a testimonial dinner. The guests including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Walter Lippman, Judge William McAdoo, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Lillian Wald and Felix Warburg.[1]

Later life, death, and legacyEdit

Davis retired to Pacific Grove, California, with her sisters. Davis died December 10, 1935, from cerebral arteriosclerosis at her home.[1]

During her lifetime Davis was honored numerous times by a variety of organizations. The Panama-Pacific Exposition designated her one of the three most distinguished women in America.[4] Davis received honorary degrees from Mount Holyoke College, Western Reserve and Yale universities.[1]

Selected worksEdit

  • (1925) A Study of Certain Auto-Erotic Practices

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s McCarthy, Thomas C. (1997). New York City's Suffragist Commissioner: Correction's Katherine Bement Davis. New York, New York: New York City Department of Correction.
  2. ^ Marshall, Edward (January 11, 1914). "Dr. Katherine Bement Davis Talks of Her Hopes for Bettering Conditions". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-07-22. Miss Katharine Bement Davis, who has been appointed Commissioner of Correction by Mayor Mitchel, is a very earnest woman. Her work at Bedford Reformatory, of which something was told in The Times a year ago, showed that, and it also proved her able.
  3. ^ a b c "New York's First Woman Commissioner Of Correction. Dr. Katherine Bement Davis Talks of Her Hopes for Bettering Conditions. The Tombs an Awful Problem to Face". The New York Times. January 11, 1914. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Miss Katherine Bement Davis, who has been appointed Commissioner of Correction by Mayor Mitchel, is a very earnest woman. Her work at Bedford Reformatory, of which something was told in The Times a year ago, showed that, and it also proved her able.
  4. ^ a b Simpson, Greg Ed. (2008). Problems Women Solved: Being the Story of the Woman's Board of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Read Books. p. 130. ISBN 978-1-4437-4498-0. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d Petrash, Antonia (2002). More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women. The Globe Pequot Press. p. 92.
  6. ^ Boyer, Paul S. (2008). The enduring vision: a history of the American people. Houghton Mifflin. p. 581. ISBN 978-0-618-80159-6. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
  7. ^ Owens, Annette Fuglsang (July 25, 2000). "Book Review". Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. 3. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
  8. ^ Mehler, Barry (September 1978). "Sources in the Study of Eugenics #2: The Bureau of Social Hygiene". The Mendel Newsletter. Big Rapids, Missouri: Institute for the Study of Academic Racism at Ferris State University. pp. No. 16. Retrieved 7 March 2010.