Remembering Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis (1907-2013)

Kathryn Wasserman Davis
Kathryn Wasserman Davis (1907-2013)

This past month marks the passing of Kathryn Wasserman Davis at the extraordinarily advanced age of 106. As a benefactor who left her alma mater, Wellesley College, more than $50 million as well as supporting many other causes, her role as a major philanthropist was more than notable.

But she was also one of the most colorful figures in the world of philanthropy – in some respects a throwback to another era but in other ways totally modern.

A child of privilege – her family’s fortune came from the merchant trade in St. Louis – Kathryn Wasserman was born in Philadelphia. She was educated in private schools there and was a graduate of Wellesley College. (Almost unheard of for women of the time, she would go on to earn a Master’s degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Geneva – all of them by 1935.)

Her family also included notable people in the world of medicine and social justice. An uncle (the bacteriologist August Paul von Wassermann), for example, developed the Wassermann test for syphilis. And she marched with her mother in support of the suffragette movement when she was a child.

So it was only natural that Kathryn would gravitate toward the social sciences in her own life interests. After graduating from Wellesley, she joined a group riding horseback in the Caucasus region of the Soviet Union under the leadership of anthropologist Leslie Alvin White.

It was the first of more than 30 visits she would make to the Soviet Union and its successor nations – the last trip taken when she was over 90 years old!

Traveling was in her blood. After earning a master’s degree in international relations at Columbia, Kathryn returned to Europe to complete her Ph.D. at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Geneva is where she met her future husband, a banking and insurance executive Shelby Cullom Davis, who would go on to form the Davis Family of Mutual Funds. He would also serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1974.

Kathryn Wasserman Davis (early years)The two were married in 1932. Collaborating with her husband in investment activities, Kathryn became one of the very first female members of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1937, at the tender age of 30, she was named a member of the Committee for Suggested Improvement for social security laws, then still in evolution.

Her marriage to Mr. Davis would produce three children. While not traveling around the world – to the aforementioned Russia but also multiple visits to India and China – Kathryn raised their family in Westchester County, NY, becoming active in various civic activities such as the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood.

The field of medicine was of particular interest to Kathryn. Going in a different direction from her uncle’s focus on venereal disease, her interests focused on curing glaucoma, leading to major support of the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and research into the role of genetics.

Besides her generous financial support of Wellesley College over a 75-year period, Kathryn’s philanthropy extended to a great many other organizations and institutions, including these:

  • American/Soviet Youth Orchestra
  • College of the Atlantic
  • East-West Institute
  • Friends of Acadia
  • Heritage Foundation
  • Hoover Institute
  • Institute for World Politics
  • Jackson Laboratory
  • Lincoln Center
  • Maine Coast Heritage Trust
  • Princeton University
  • Wheaton College

Of all of her philanthropic efforts, the one that pleased her most was Projects for Peace. This initiative was established on her 100th birthday, launching 100 prizes of $10,000 each for student projects submitted for judging based on their tangible, local means to foster peace. Since then, more than 1,000 initiatives have been started, some of which have blossomed into sustained programs in a wide variety of countries. Many of them are focused on youth.

Kathryn Wasserman Davis in Florida
Kathryn Wasserman Davis, “active elder.”

A “people” person, Kathryn Davis attracted the attention and gratitude of many during her long and active life. Some were famous – such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s … all the way up violinist Joshua Bell, who serenaded her on her 106thbirthday earlier this year.

Very late in life – at age 94 – Kathryn Davis took up a new hobby: painting. For the next dozen years, she produced more than 200 works of art in acrylics and water colors. Mainly landscapes, these paintings can be found throughout the world. It’s just one more interesting facet of a person who also remained an active skier and tennis player into her 10th decade!

A few years ago, one of Kathryn Davis’ eleven great-grandchildren asked her what her favorite day of the year was, expecting to hear something like Thanksgiving or Independence Day as the response.

Instead, as befits someone who has lived such a long and full life, Kathryn Wasserman Davis replied, “Tomorrow!”

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