Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Daniel Sutherland Davidson (1900–1952)

by F. D. McCarthy

This article was published:

Daniel Sutherland Davidson (1900-1952), anthropologist, was born on 9 July 1900 at Cohoes, New York, United States of America, son of Matthew Henry Davidson, travelling salesman, and his wife Laura, née Sutherland. After education at the local Egberts High School, from 1920 he attended the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (B.S., 1923; A.M., 1924; Ph.D., 1928). Except for two years in 1932-33 at the University of Buffalo, he was on the staff of the University of Pennsylvania from 1924 to 1946 and associate professor of anthropology there from 1940. He was at the University of Oregon in 1947-48 and was professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1949-52.

Though he carried out research on American Indians and wrote a monograph on snowshoes, Davidson's major anthropological work was on Oceania with particular emphasis on Australian Aboriginals. In a number of studies he mapped the geographical distribution of particular cultural traits, interpreting the resulting patterns as largely the result of historical development through innovation and/or diffusion. In 1928 he published his doctoral thesis The Chronological Aspects of Certain Australian Social Institutions …; it was savagely reviewed by Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, who preferred contemporary sociological research of Aboriginal societies to historical reconstruction.

Davidson visited Australia in 1930-31 and 1938-40, examining private and museum collections and carrying out field-work, mainly in northern Australia, where he excavated several prehistoric sites. In 1934 and 1936 he located and edited important, previously unpublished, material by E. Hassell from the 1880s, on Aboriginal life in south-western Australia. His other research resulted in monographs on rock and decorative art, social institutions, tribal distribution and string figures, and in some forty papers on a wide range of subjects, including rafts and canoes, utensils, weapons, stone artefacts, netting and basketry, throwing darts, footwear, mourning caps, fire-making, and the origin of the boomerang. He wrote also on the relationships of the cultures of Australia, Tasmania, Melanesia, Indonesia and Tierra del Fuego, and on trans-Pacific migrations.

Davidson's periods of research in Australia were brief, but so little was then being done in the fields of art and material culture that his perceptive work in these neglected areas was above contemporary Australian standards and has proved of use to later prehistorians. His efforts to delineate tribal groupings and cultural traits across Australia are now dated but were an attempt to provide a comprehensive and developmental view of Aboriginal culture.

Nicknamed 'Sud', Davidson was of medium height and build with dark hair and a trim moustache. The societies to which he belonged included the American Folk-lore Society, of which he was secretary and treasurer in 1942-44. Swimming and mountain climbing were among his favourite recreations. He had married Elma Ely Barber on 21 December 1929; she accompanied him on his visits to Australia. He died of a heart attack at Altamonte Springs, Florida, on 26 December 1952, survived by his wife and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Oceania, 1 (1930), no 3
  • Mankind, 4 (1953), no 11
  • American Anthropologist, 56 (1954), and for publications
  • Archives of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Oregon
  • private information.

Citation details

F. D. McCarthy, 'Davidson, Daniel Sutherland (1900–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 July, 1900
Cohoes, New York, United States of America


26 December, 1952 (aged 52)
Altamonte Springs, Florida, United States of America

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.