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Sun, 08.22.1926

Dr. William Conan Davis, Biochemist born

Dr. William C. Davis

*Dr. William Davis was born on this date in 1926.  He was a Black research scientist, professor emeritus (biochemistry), and inventor.  

William Conan Davis was born in Waycross, Georgia, to Kince Charles Davis and his wife Laura Jane (née Cooper. Kince Davis' family was Ethiopian Jews, and he read Hebrew but not English.  He was a railway construction engineer and crew boss, a position that brought him threats from the Ku Klux Klan.  He later started a herbal medicine business, the only source of medical care accessible to many Black people in Georgia.  

Young Davis spent the summers with his maternal grandfather, Jonas Franklin, a Sioux Indian who farmed and hunted near the Okefenokee Swamp.  Davis attended Magnolia Grammar School and Dasher High School in Valdosta, Georgia. He received a high school diploma from Dasher in 1944. His family was active in American Civil Rights and supportive of their children's education.

On one occasion, Kince Davis drove his sons William and Kenneth to the Tuskegee Institute to attend a workshop with George Washington Carver and Henry Ford. This experience fueled Davis's interest in becoming a chemist.  Dasher High School did not teach at a college preparatory level, which was a disadvantage in science and mathematics. His family sent him to New York City in 1944 to prepare him. He lived with his older brother, actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis. He attended Dwight High School, graduating in 1945.  Davis briefly attended the City College of New York but was advised to transfer to Talladega College in Alabama, where he could get more individual support in calculus.  Davis was enrolled in the U.S. Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps. He was drafted to serve in the Korean War during his first year at Talladega. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He served in Germany and was awarded a Purple Heart in 1953.   On his return, Davis completed his B.S. in chemistry at Talladega College, graduating in 1956. He was one of three students chosen for a George Washington Carver research fellowship to attend the Tuskegee Institute in 1956.  

At the time, it was almost impossible for a Black scientist to train for a professional career in research in the United States. Even at Tuskegee, the usual career track was to train as a teacher, specializing in one's area of interest.  Davis was determined to do research. He worked with Clarence T. Mason of Tuskegee and studied the hydrolysis rate of compounds in jet fuel. Davis received his Master of Science in organic chemistry from Tuskegee in 1958.  The University of Idaho was the only American university willing to accept Davis as a research-track Ph.D. graduate student.  He and his wife, Ocia, moved to Moscow, Idaho; his thesis research involved potatoes.

Davis studied the process of sloughing, by which plant materials break down. This has important applications in food chemistry. Soup manufacturers want potatoes that tend to stay firm, not sloughing. Makers of mashed potatoes want potato flakes to break down rapidly and reform with a uniform, soft consistency.  Meanwhile, the Industrial Research Department at Washington State University advertised for summer researchers to study the buildup of particles on saw blades in lumber mills. Davis applied and identified the problem's source by isolating and extracting a dry, crystal-like powder, arabinogalactan, that produced a sticky paste when water was added to it.  This water-soluble polysaccharide is found in Western Larch trees (Larix occidentalis) and other plants and is believed to have health benefits.  At the time, no one knew how to use the substance Davis had identified.  

At the University of Idaho, Davis studied potato chips and what caused them to blister when fried. He was able to isolate the substance that caused the blistering; Davis tried adding arabinogalactans to his potato mixtures.  The water was absorbed, and the potatoes fluffed up. Davis' approach improved the sloughing properties of the potatoes and created instant mashed potatoes with a more desirable texture and consistency.   While completing his doctorate, Davis worked with scientists at Washington State University in various fields, including clinical research with Mark Adams.  Davis did further research into the extraction of arabinogalactan from larch trees. He identified a sugar that makes frozen desserts smoother and is used to make soft-serve ice cream.  He also helped discover a wood sugar used in industrial glue to make compressed wood.  These discoveries were not patented, and others were further developed.  

Davis received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Idaho in 1965. His Ph.D. thesis was A Study of Sloughing in the Potato Tuber (1965). He was the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Idaho.  After graduation, Davis accepted a position as a researcher with the Division of Industrial Research at Washington State University, researching antigens for hay fever.  Davis worked as a post-doctoral fellow with Rosalyn Yalow at the Bronx Veteran's Affairs Hospital, where he learned radioimmunoassay techniques for diabetic patients.  Using his knowledge of radioimmunoassay techniques, Davis developed standardized tests for detecting thyroxin in the bloodstream.  He also developed standardized blood tests for insulin and growth hormones.  Davis was recruited as a health physicist, became head of the radioactivity department at United Medical Laboratories in Portland, Oregon, and became director of the laboratory.  

He spent nearly fifteen years as Director of United Medical Laboratories, providing analyses for doctors worldwide.   They devised methods for reducing the time and cost of conducting clinical assays to develop and detect concentrations of hormones and steroids in the blood, such as aldosterone, estrogen, and testosterone.  He helped make exotic procedures routine and brought their price down. Using autoanalyzer's when they had just come out, we could perform tests more quickly than they could be done locally.  In 1970, Davis worked with Kent Ford of the Portland Black Panther Party and others to establish the Fred Hampton Memorial Clinic to support blacks in the Portland area.  The clinic offered free medical services to blacks and whites in the Albina neighborhood. Davis was one of the few Black professionals to volunteer at the clinic; he was strongly involved in its Sickle-Cell Anemia initiatives. The clinic emphasized screening, education, and counseling about the genetic disorder that disproportionately affects African Americans.  In 1972, Davis helped put on the Black Community Survival Conference, a protest against the expansion of the Emanuel Hospital. The expansion was planned without community input and largely destroyed the commercial center of a historically black neighborhood.

From 1974 to 1975, Davis was a visiting scientist at the George Hyman Research Institute in Washington, D.C.  From 1979 to 1982, Davis was a research associate in Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas.  He worked on studying the effects of picrotoxin, benzodiazepines, pentobarbital, ethanol, and other psychoactive substances on receptor-binding sites.  

In 1983, Davis was an instructor in the chemistry department at St. Philip's College, giving him more opportunities for teaching and research.  He became a full professor of chemistry in 1995. He became the chair of the Natural Sciences Department in 1996.  He was also the director of Renewable Energy at St. Philip's College.   While at St. Philip's College, one of Davis' study focuses was water. Davis worked with United Beverage company to study the behavioral properties of Penta Water, which he nicknamed "kinetic water." Due to its purification process, the company promoted its product as having uniquely distinct chemical properties. Davis studied boiling point, pH, polarity, and surface tension characteristics.  With Lanier Byrd, Davis co-created the formula that gives a characteristic taste to Dasani water, a product of The Coca-Cola Company. In addition to hydrology, Davis was interested in recombinant DNA and fuel cell technologies for renewable energy.  

Davis retired in 2009, becoming a St. Philip's College professor emeritus. At that time, it was decided to rename the natural sciences building in his honor to acknowledge his contributions. It was reopened and dedicated as the William C. Davis Science Building in 2012. A portrait of William Davis hangs in the science building.   He is best known for his research in food chemistry.  Davis has also been active in preserving the history of science. He has helped establish the Ernest Stevenson Collection of scientific books and artifacts housed at the Sutton Learning Center at St. Philip's College.

During an interview with African American Registry® in 2010, he said: 'Observe!' I have instructed my students to do thousands of times. We can take two or more existing things, analyze them for what they are, and then synthesize something entirely new that did not exist before. This is the heartbeat of scientific research and discovery.  I tell my students to be curious about everything and ask, 'How can I improve this? How can I be of service?  He was working on his memoirs with historian Jeanette Nyda Mendelssohn Passty before he died on March 16, 2022.

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