Photo of Katharine Bement Davis

Katharine Bement Davis





Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Chicago (1900)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Bedford Hills Women’s Reformatory (1901–1914)

New York City Department of Correction (1914-1917)

Bureau of Social Hygiene (1917-1932)

Career Focus:

Criminology; sociology; prison reform; social work; sex research.


Katharine Bement Davis was born January 15th,1860 in Buffalo, New York to Oscar Bill Davis and Frances Bement Davis. She was the eldest of five children. During her childhood she attended Rochester Free Academy in Rochester, New York, where she graduated at nineteen years old in 1879. Due to financial issues, Davis could not pursue higher education right out of high school, so she became a teacher at Dunkirk High School. She worked as a teacher until 1890, when she could afford to attend Vassar College. There, Davis studied food chemistry and nutrition. She graduated in 1892 with honours. Davis pursued further postsecondary education at Columbia University, and at the same time took work teaching at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls.

In 1893, Davis was hired to be the director of a model home of “the workingman,” an exhibit organized by New York for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This home was a two-story brick building with six rooms and a bath, built for a family of five. The purpose of the model was to demonstrate how a family unit could maintain dietary and living standards on a small $500 salary. The project was a success, and after this experience Davis was pulled away from teaching into the realm of social work. Shortly after leaving her director position, she was made the Head Resident of St. Mary’s College Settlement located in Philadelphia, which consisted primarily of low-income families of color. Here, she was able to implement the social understandings and practices she had established in the Chicago model, and set up reading areas, classes, and clubs for the local residents.

In 1897 Davis moved on from her position at the settlement to start her Ph.D. in political economics with a minor in sociology at the University of Chicago. During her doctoral work, she was given the opportunity to travel to the universities of Berlin and Vienna before returning to Chicago and graduating in 1900.

The same year she received her doctoral degree, Davis began her position as a superintendent at Bedford Hills Women’s Reformatory. Davis believed that the women at the reformatory should be treated compassionately, as opposed to being treated with cruelty founded on the nature of their crimes. She also believed offenders should be given opportunities to improve themselves while incarcerated, and that correctional institutions were responsible for releasing healthy, self-sufficient, employable citizens. At Bedford Hills she was able introduce courses on homemaking, a department focused on training women in various trades, and medical treatment for sex workers. Davis worked at Bedford Hills for 13 years, gaining international acknowledgement for her penal reforms. Her work attracted the interest of John D. Rockefeller who decide to work alongside her and set up the Laboratory of Social Hygiene right next to the Bedford Hills reformatory. Davis was one of the original board members of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, which managed, among other things, Rockefeller’s new laboratory. The laboratory’s focus of study was female offenders, the majority of whom were previously prostitutes and had been convicted of sexual offences. Although Davis resigned from Bedford Hills in 1914 she continued to stay in touch with Rockefeller and his research until 1928.

Davis was appointed as New York’s first female Commissioner of Corrections on January 1st, 1914 by Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. In addition to running a municipal agency which put her in charge of 650 employees at nine different prisons and jails housing 5,500 inmates, being in a position of power allowed Davis to become a public face for the suffrage movement. Davis spoke at suffrage meetings, and participated in parades and rallies in favor of women’s right to vote. In 1915, New York named Davis the very first chair of the parole board and that same year she was named one of the three most famous women in America by the Panama-Pacific Exposition’s Women’s Board.

In 1917, Davis left New York’s Department of Corrections and started working at the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH). During her time at the BSH she coordinated a study on the sex lives of women that was eventually extended to include lesbian women. This study made history by being the first study to thoroughly explore women’s sexuality and it propelled the BSH into the field of sex research. Davis later helped create a proposal which led the National Research Council to conduct a large study on human sexuality including sex habits, sexual impulses, attitudes towards sex, masturbation, intercourse, birth rates and more. Notably, like many other social reformers of her race, class, and era, she was a eugenicist. In 1919 she wrote the screenplay for a popular women's social hygiene film sponsored by the United States War Department, The End of the Road. The film conveyed a particularly white feminist eugenic vision of which Davis was an exemplar. In 1924, she accepted a position on the Committee on Eugenics of the United States' Advisory Council.

Due to health issues involving her gallbladder and heart, Davis retired from the BSH in 1932. She moved to Pacific Grove, California, to be with her two sisters. She died there on December 10th, 1935, at the age seventy-five.

by Moriah Gilette (2018)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

By Katharine Bement Davis

Davis, K. B. (1929). Factors in the sex life of twenty-two hundred women. Oxford: Harper.

Davis, K. (1927). Periodicity of sex desire part II. Married women. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 14(3), pp.345-360.

Davis, K. (1926). Periodicity of sex desire. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 12(6), pp. 824-838.

Davis, K. B. (1916). Probation and Parole (Report of the Committee of the American Prison Association). Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology,7(2), 165.

Davis, K. (1913). A plan of rational treatment for women offenders. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 4(3), p.402.

About Katharine Bement Davis

Bullough, V. L. (1988). Katharine Bement Davis, sex research, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 62(1), 74-89.

Fitzpatrick, E. (1987). Katharine Bement Davis, early twentieth-century American women, and the study of sex behavior. New York: Garland.

Fitzpatrick, E. (1990). Endless crusade: Women social scientists and Progressive reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mathiason, J. L. (2021). From sentimentality to science: Social utility, feminist eugenics, and The End of the Road in Progressive Era America. Gender & History, 33, 149-168.

Petrash, A. (2002). More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women. The Globe Pequot Press. p. 92.

Stage, S. (2013). What “Good Girls” Do: Katharine Bement Davis and the moral panic of the first U.S. sexual survey. In B. Fahs, M. L. Dudy, & S. Stage (Eds.), The moral panics of sexuality. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Terry, J. (1999). An American obsession: Science, medicine, and homosexuality in modern society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.