With great sadness, utmost respect, and deep sympathy for his family, we acknowledge the passing of H. Chandler Davis, courageous, stalwart and lifelong champion of academic and intellectual freedom in the face of persecution, including his own imprisonment. For many years professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Toronto, he was a former instructor at the University of Michigan, until he was dismissed from the University in 1954 for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in violation of his academic freedom. Professor Chandler was one of three faculty members whose academic freedom was contravened at that time and for whom the U-M Senate’s Davis-Markert-Nickerson Lecture in Academic and Intellectual Freedom was later created. At the time of his death, Professor Davis was the last surviving member of the three.
H. Chandler Davis was well known as a science-fiction author in his youth. At the same time he was a mathematics student at Harvard, earning a Ph.D. in 1950.
He was an instructor at the University of Michigan, 1950-1954. He was tenured at the University of Toronto in 1962 and spent the remainder of his long and productive career there. He was Vice-President of the American Mathematical Society (1991-1994). He has also served as an editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer.
Professor Davis’s scientific pursuits have taken him on many travels to Poland during the martial law of 1982; to both the USA and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam while those countries were at war; to China during the Cultural Revolution; to both Israel and the occupied West Bank. Often along with the scientific work he was able to stand up for free speech of scientists (some of whose speech he does not at all endorse).
In 1954, while an instructor at the University of Michigan, Chandler Davis was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His fellows on the stand in Lansing were his colleagues Mark Nickerson and Clement L. Markert, and his student friends Edward Shaffer and Myron E. Sharpe. All were “unfriendly witnesses, refusing to confess” their political dissent. Davis, unlike the others, based his refusal to answer only on the First Amendment, waiving his protection under the Fifth Amendment. Thereby he deliberately invited a citation for Contempt of Congress, so as to give him standing to argue in court that the Committee’s proceedings were unconstitutional. He got the citation, all right, but he did not prevail in court; his appeals were exhausted in 1959 and he served prison time in 1960.
Meanwhile, he and Professor Nickerson had been dismissed from their positions at the University. This action of the University administration drew censure from the American Association of University Professors.
He wrote about those days in “The Purge” (A Century of Mathematics in America, American Mathematical Society, 1989). A selection of his prose writings, not including his mathematics but including some science-fiction is It Walks in Beauty (ed. J.Lukin, Aqueduct Press, 2010).
In 1990, following a failed petition to the Board of Regents formally to recognize the wrongful treatment of Davis, Markert, and Nickerson, the Senate Assembly passed a resolution that deeply regretted “the failure of the University Community to protect the values of intellectual freedom” in 1954, and established the annual University of Michigan Senate Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
Professor Davis was a strong supporter of the lecture, attending essentially all, lending his incisive intellect, experienced insights, and inspiring presence to the proceedings and surrounding events with lecturers, faculty, and students. Those privileged to know him will always remember his courage, his fierce intelligence, his commitment to freedom and right, and his magnanimous spirit. He will be much missed at future lectures.
We express our heartfelt sympathy to Professor Davis’s wife, Professor Natalie Zemon Davis, herself a Davis-Markert-Nickerson Lecturer (2015) and champion of academic freedom, and to their children.
-SACUA and the Senate Assembly Davis, Markert and Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture Committee.