Biographical / Historical
Jean Scobie Davis, a 1914 graduate of Bryn Mawr College, taught economics and sociology at Agnes Scott College, Vassar College, Pierce College, Wells College and the American Women’s College in Beirut. A lifetime interest in prison reform resulted in her work at the New York State Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York.
Jean Scobie Davis was born in 1892 to John D. Davis and Marguerite Scobie. John D. Davis, an 1879 graduate of Princeton, taught Semitic Languages at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Marguerite Scobie, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1884 and studied singing at the Leipzig Conservatory and Paris. Jean Scobie Davis received her education from Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, Bryn Mawr College, graduating in 1914, and the University of Wisconsin, earning her master’s degree in 1921 and her doctorate in 1929. In 1906 and 1907, Davis spent time in Europe.
In the fall of 1910, Davis’s education at Bryn Mawr College commenced. She majored in history and minored in economics. She graduated in 1914 and travelled with her family to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, with the intention of studying French in preparation for taking graduate courses in history in Paris. The outbreak of World War I altered her plans and she instead studied economics and international law at the University of Geneva during the winter of 1914-1915. She also became active in working with students from Russia and the Balkans who were stranded in Switzerland due to the war. In March 1915, Davis left Switzerland for Paris and after a brief stay, returned to the United States in July.
During the winter of 1915-1916, Davis volunteered in Greenwich Village, NY performing “settlement-house work.” She spent the summers of 1915 and 1916 working at a summer camp for low-wage earners. She then worked as an Instructor in economics and sociology at Agnes Scott College in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. During her time in Georgia, Davis’ interest in prison reform developed and she and a colleague spent weekends visiting the State Reformatory for girls, as well as jails and labor camps. During the summers of 1918 and 1919 and the winters of 1919 to 1921, she pursued graduate studies in economics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, earning her Master’s Degree in 1921. Her chief interests while at Wisconsin were the history of economic thought, and problems of labor in industry.
In 1921, she returned to Bryn Mawr as a tutor in economics at the first session of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. In September of the same year, she went to Vassar College as Instructor in Economics. In 1922, she returned to Agnes Scott College as Associate Professor of Economics and Sociology, and the next year was promoted to Professor.
During the following five years living in the south, Davis studied and researched the development of professional social work in Atlanta, the history of organized labor, and the cotton mills and their villages, where most of the workers, “poor whites,” were illiterate and had not yet formed unions. Her method of study involved dressing in gingham and living in the mill boarding houses with the workers, posing as “a teacher on vacation.” Because teachers in Georgia and South Carolina at the time were very poorly paid, no one was surprised that she had chosen cheap boarding houses in which to survive the wage-less summer. In this way, she gathered material for her doctoral dissertation on Labor Management in Southern Cotton Mills.
In 1927-1928, she served as research assistant to Professor Paul Douglas of the University of Chicago, who later became a U.S. Senator from Illinois, and also took part in a seminar in American History given by Professor William Dodd.
In September 1928, she became Professor and Chairman of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Wells College in Aurora, New York, where she remained until retirement in 1957. In 1929, she received her Doctorate in Economics at the University of Wisconsin. She spent the summer vacations of 1932 and 1938 in England, visiting factories and prisons, reformatories and other public institutions; and for two months in 1935, she pursued similar studies in Russia and Finland. Using a special leave of absence from Wells in 1946-1947, she travelled to Greece which was still recovering from World War II and in a state of civil war, and combined teaching at Pierce College with reconstruction work, principally at the Women’s Prison in Athens.
After retirement and a second visit to Russia, she taught for a year at the American Women’s College in Beirut. She travelled again to Europe, visiting England, Paris, Italy, Greece and Crete. She was to say of these trips, “My visits to Europe have never been as a tourist, but always as a student, an observer of correctional institutions, a teacher, or as a guest of relatives or friends—long leisurely visits, during which I came to feel at home in other cultures and other centuries.”
From the early 1930s on, her chief “outside interest,” which she would say was actually an “inside interest, was in women’s prisons and reformatories for teenagers. Her interest gained her entrance where few were admitted, and successive Governors of New York State appointed her to serve for thirty-six years on the Board of Visitors of the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills, New York.
Davis died at her home in Aurora, NY in 1985. She was described by Carolyn Bunn Wood, the recipient of the 1999 Alumnae Award at Wells College as, “a legend … [and] one of the most brilliant women [she has] ever known,” (Wood). In honor of Davis, Wells College awards the Jean Scobie Davis Prize to a member of the graduating class who majors in either economics or sociology, and who shows “both the fine understanding of facts, and the social implication of the subject involved, so characteristic of Miss Davis,” (Wells College).
Well College Catalog, page 55. (http://minerva.wells.edu/pdfs/Wells_Catalog_2009-
10.pdf) [accessed December 8, 2009]
Wood, Carolyn Bunn, 1999 Alumnae Award Acceptance Address,
http://www.wells.edu/whatsnew/wnspch19.htm [accessed December 8, 2009]