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R.I.P. Kathryn Davis: Celebrating 106 Years of an Adventurer-Scholar’s Life


Yesterday, I attended a memorial service in New York for a pioneering philanthrophist who passed away last month at the astonishing age of 106. Kathryn Davis was active until the end of her life, skiing into her 80s, playing tennis into her 90s, and taking up kayaking after she hit the century mark.

In her extraordinary saga, she was an author, scholar, Ph.D., mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, world traveler, and a mentor to hundreds of people. Along with her husband, the late Ambassador Shelby Cullom Davis, she made the bequests that established the Heritage Foundation’s foreign-policy credentials. A former ambassador to Switzerland, Ambassador Davis also served as Heritage’s board chairman from 1985 to 1992, before dying in 1994 at the age of 85.

The Davis Institute at Heritage employs 35 scholar and researchers. One of its major products is the Index of Economic Freedom. Co-published with the Wall Street Journal, the Index – which measures the relative freedom of economies around the world – has become a must-read for foreign leaders, market watchers, and policy makers. More than one head of state has publicly praised – or chastised — Heritage for its rankings of economies.

Davis was proud of her efforts to build Heritage’s standing. But she had so much more to be proud of. One of the first women to graduate with a doctorate from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, she traveled to the Soviet Union or Russia some 30 times. In 1929, following her graduation from Wellesley College, she rode on horseback through the Caucasus Mountains in search of an obscure Muslim tribe. Her Ph.D. thesis was published as a book in 1934, Soviets in Geneva. She was a trustee of her alma mater for 18 years and actively supported the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. For her 100th birthday, she created Davis Projects for Peace, which funds 100 individual student programs seeking to increase global understanding.

I had the privilege of meeting Kathryn Davis many times and if anyone could convince you of the ability of people to remain vital in old age, she took away the prize. At the memorial service, a friend recalled telling her recently that she had done so many things she would have made a great professor. She then leaned down to hear Davis reply: “It is never too late.”