Having skied into her 80s, played tennis into her 90s, and kayaked, swum, painted, traveled and taken on all comers at croquet until this year, Kathryn Wasserman Davis remained a wonder and inspiration to those around her. Recently asked by one of her great-grandchildren to name her favorite day, she instantly replied, “Tomorrow.”
Born in Philadelphia on February 25, 1907, Kathryn Davis was educated at The Madeira School in Washington, D.C. She received a B.A. from Wellesley College, an M.A. in international relations from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
In 1934, her doctoral dissertation, The Soviets in Geneva, was published and became a best seller in Europe when her controversial prediction that the Soviet Union would join the League of Nations proved both timely and correct. She went on to author numerous articles on foreign affairs and was a frequent and engaging lecturer to educational and civic groups in the United States, India, Russia, China, and Switzerland.
Although she wrote and lectured about her travels throughout the world, Russia and the Soviet Union remained her lifelong passion. In 1996, this passion was memorialized when Harvard’s Russian Research Center was renamed in honor of her and her late husband, the legendary investor, diplomat and philanthropist Shelby Cullom Davis.
Kathryn Davis first visited Russia in 1929, traveling through the Caucasus Mountains on horseback with famed anthropologist Leslie White. This adventure included a run-in with bandits who stole the group’s food and horses. “We ate wild berries for breakfast and spit-roasted mountain goat for dinner,” she told The Moscow Times in 2002, “and I couldn’t have been happier.” During her lifetime she returned to Russia more than 30 times, deepening her passion for its people, history and culture and developing friendships that included former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was her dinner partner at her 95th birthday party.
A shared interest in world affairs first drew her to her husband. They met on a train headed for Geneva in 1930 and discovered they had both recently traveled in Russia, though Mr. Davis’ journey to Moscow was the more conventional of the two trips. After returning to New York and completing masters’ degrees at Columbia University, they were married on January 4, 1932. They would return to Switzerland, first to complete their doctorates in 1934, again from 1969 to 1975 when Mr. Davis served as U.S. ambassador in Bern and then every winter thereafter until his death in 1994. Throughout 60 years of marriage, they traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, often pairing his interest in global investment opportunities with her interest in international affairs.
After the death of Ambassador Davis, Kathryn Davis dedicated herself to philanthropy, initially focusing her efforts on education and international affairs and later adding medical research. In particular, she was devoted to her alma mater Wellesley College where she served as a trustee for 18 years, created the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, and looked forward to attending her 85th reunion next month.
In 1998, at the age of 91, she took up kayaking, making regular excursions on the Hudson River and along the coast and on the lakes of Maine. As a result of these experiences, she became a significant supporter of environmental organizations including Scenic Hudson, Friends of Acadia, and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Kathryn Davis, at the age of 94, turned her philanthropic mission to a vision for world peace. For her 100th birthday in 2007, she created Davis Projects for Peace, a visionary program that funds 100 student summer projects each year aimed at increasing global understanding. Throughout the remainder of her life, she urged every student she met “to prepare for peace, not war.”
For her last birthday, Kathryn Davis was serenaded by renowned violinists Joshua Bell and Misha Simonyan whom she had supported as teenage members of the American Soviet Youth Orchestra. She called the evening “one of the highlights of my life.”
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Kathryn Wasserman Davis, 1907 - 2013." (Viewed on December 8, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/davis-kathryn>.