In Memorium - Jeanne Vance Davis
Jeanne Vance Davis
Jeanne Davis, who served Rachel Carson as executive assistant and secretary from
1959-1964, died at age 89 in Charlottesville, Virginia on December 20. In 1959 Davis
answered an advertisement for an assistant that Rachel Carson put in the Washington
Post when she was far behind her deadline on what was to be the revolutionary book
Silent Spring. At the time, Davis was the wife of Dr. Burnet M. Davis and the mother
of two teenagers living in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland. Carson interviewed Davis
at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she offered her the job immediately,
telling her editor, "if I had set out to make someone up I could hardly have done
Davis had "an incredibly right background." She attended Doane College in Crete,
Nebraska, where she pursued her love of literature, theater, and classical music.
She transferred to the University of California at Berkeley where she received a
B.A. in economics in 1934. She moved to Boston and completed an executive secretarial
course at Simmons College and then worked as an assistant to the Dean of the Harvard
They moved to Rochester where Dr. Davis did a surgical residency and Jeanne was
research and editorial assistant to the bio-psychologist Leonard Carmichael, later
Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1949 she and her husband settled in
Chevy Chase where he was a physician in the U.S. Public Health Service. Mrs. Davis
also worked in the early 1960s as a part-time research assistant to bio-physicist
Leo Szliard who, with Albert Einstein, had encouraged the United States to develop
an atomic energy program and later insisted that scientists accept responsibility
for the consequences of their work. Jeanne was thoroughly familiar with the intricacies
of medical research and with a wide range of scientific and technical literature.
She had excellent editorial skills, was widely read herself, with many contacts,
both social and scientific, and was superbly organized.
Her personality was perfectly matched to Carson's. She was calm, efficient, soft-spoken,
and unflappable. She had a wonderfully gentle manner and a keenly inquisitive and
observant mind. She was in fact more broadly educated than Carson, but her demeanor
and her character were such that these qualities only enhanced her value to Carson.
Davis was privately horrified at the magnitude of work Carson had left to do on
a book that was originally due in 1960 but not finished until 1962. She set herself
up in library carrel at the National Institute of Health where she abstracted articles,
turned up scientific documents, and made important contacts, which Carson used to
make her case against the misuse of pesticides.
When Carson's cancer became more aggressive, it was Davis who not only kept the
manuscript up to date, typing and editing, as well as screening calls and making
appointments, but she also chauffeured Carson back and forth to the Washington Hospital
Center for daily treatments. It is not too much to claim that without Davis, Carson
could never have finished her book, nor would it have had the sound scientific underpinnings
that allowed it to stand up to withering attack on publication. Davis was an intrinsic
and essential part of the agonizing and brilliant achievement that was Silent Spring.
Davis always claimed that she was given the gift of watching a major work of literature
come to life, and downplayed her own contributions to it.
After Carson's death in April 1964, Davis was responsible for sorting and arranging
Carson's literary papers, which were given to the newly opened Beinecke Rare Book
and Manuscript Library. Sadly, her husband Burnet died of cancer four years later.
Although Davis maintained an active social life, and was quite beautiful, she never
remarried. She was a master gardener and with her husband created an enviable landscape
and garden at her home. She was also an inveterate traveler and loved nothing better
than to take off for some new destination. A true citizen of the world, she was
active in the Chevy Chase community, and in the local Unitarian church. She was
beloved by many.
Davis participated in Neil Goodwin's 1994 documentary, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Her on-camera interview for that film remains the most memorable portrait of Rachel
Carson replete with Davis's perceptive insight into the woman, the scientist, and
Jean Davis's obituary was published in The Washington Post, January 2, 2005. C8.
Material about Davis, including some correspondence, can be found in the Rachel
Carson Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale University, and
in the Stanley and Dorothy Freeman Papers, Special Collections, at Bates College.
The Lear/Carson Collection, The Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives
at Connecticut College holds correspondence, interviews, including the transcript
for the Peace River documentary, and audiotapes made for Linda Lear's 1997 biography
of Carson, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, as well as some photographs and other
correspondence between Davis and Lear. Some restrictions apply to this material.