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  • ReflectionsIntellectual Trajectories: Why People Study What they Do
  • David Brion Davis (bio)

Based on a talk given at Yale’s Koerner Center, October 13, 2004.

The connections between what a scholar chooses to write about and teach and the rather winding path of his or her personal life are cloudy and somewhat obscure. Yet there surely are many such connections, and I’ll try at least to dredge up some of them in my talk.

Growing up in the 1930s—I don’t know how it is now—there was the perennial question every child got, again, and again, and again. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer always was, “a scientist, a scientist.” I had a passion for collecting minerals, and I had a big butterfly collection, and above all, loved fossils. I had brachiopods and even some dinosaur bones. And then by the age of twelve, I had a small chemistry lab in the basement and was doing all kinds of experiments with flasks and retorts, following a high school or college text. Once a flask broke and chlorine gas went all over the floor, and my mother had to come and help sweep it down the drain.

But my dad was a reporter, a journalist, before he became a successful independent novelist. As a reporter he interviewed an endocrinologist in Buffalo, New York, and he was immensely impressed with what he thought would be an exceedingly important and vital field for health and human improvement in the future. So, after hearing him talk so much about that, when people asked me the big question, I’d say, “Well, I want to be an endocrinologist.” In high school I was not especially interested in history courses. I loved English and the study of literature, and I very much liked chemistry, physics, and biology.

Yet the very mention of high school evokes the terrible crisis I faced at age sixteen, when I nearly lost out on any chance of attending college. Since my career has been focused on the Ivy League of Dartmouth, Harvard, Cornell, and Yale, it’s crucially important to recall the winds of fortuity that shape and threaten us all.

My father, Clyde Brion Davis, was a wholly self-educated but quite successful novelist. His first novels, The Anointed (1937) and “The Great American Novel” [End Page 148] (1938) received rave reviews and were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections. But some of his next eighteen books did not do so well (my favorite, Shadow of a Tiger, was published posthumously in 1963); and his career required moves in 1942 and 1943 from upstate New York to Hollywood and then to Manhattan. Accordingly, I ended up going to five high schools. After doing well in ninth grade in Hamburg, New York (where I was elected student president of the junior high school) and then spending tenth grade at Beverly Hills High School, I finally, in September 1943, landed in the Straubenmuller Textile High School in Manhattan—because it was one of the few schools that still taught German, which I had already begun studying, and it was not far from our Riverside Drive apartment. After several weeks, both my parents and the school realized this was a mistake (the school did not prepare students for college), so I took and passed the test for Bronx High School of Science. But when I arrived at Bronx Science, I was already far, far behind in the rigorous classes in math and physics. Classrooms were so jammed that in two of them I had to sit on a radiator in the back of the room. I grew so depressed that one day I traveled to the midtown headquarters of the U.S. Marines, where I stood outside debating whether to lie about my age and go in and enlist. If I had done so, I would certainly have soon been in the South Pacific.

When I was threatened with failure toward the end of the term (and thus with being barred from most colleges), my mother discovered McBurney College Prep, a private day school with small classes run by the YMCA at 15...


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pp. 148-159
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