Interview with Margaret Davis, June 10, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Margaret Davis was a professor at the University of Michigan, Yale, and the University of Minnesota, and she served as President of the Ecological Society of America from 1987 to 1988. In this interview, she talks about the role of women in science and discusses equal pay. She also talks about the formation of the ESA’s Education Section.

Interview notes

Margaret Davis' father was a Pleistocene geologist and she had a very good high school science teacher in the Boston area. Her father thought that geology, and science in general, was inappropriate for women, but that didn’t stop her. She liked biology and went to Radcliff, where her advisors encouraged her as a biology major. She developed an interest in paleoecology there.

Margaret applied for a Fulbright scholarship after college graduation. A grad student at Radcliff advised her to go to Europe to study fossil pollen. She went to Denmark to work in the Johannes Iverson lab from 1953 to 1954 and she enjoyed it; they encouraged women in science. The work involved fieldwork, which she liked.

[This is gleaned from Wikipedia, but was not mentioned in the interview: After a year in Denmark, she returned to earn a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard in 1957, studying with Elso Berghoorn and Hugh Raup; she was given an honorary M.S. from Yale in 1974 and had post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, and Yale as a research fellow. She followed her husband Rowland Davis to the University of Michigan, where she had no bargaining power for a fair salary, but she rose through the ranks and eventually bargained for a better salary and was promoted to professor at Michigan in 1970. She returned to Yale as a professor in 1973 and moved to the University of Minnesota in 1976, where she was appointed Regents Professor of Ecology and became head of the department. Later she was elected to the National Academy of Science.]

Milestones in her career

Margaret wanted to tackle some of the challenges of palynology. She compared surface tree sources as well as the pollen in the sediments because of concerns about pollen dispersal. Did pollen really represent the forests nearby? Her results caused a stir.

She also found a potential problem of pollen being redistributed or redeposited, and she pursued this as well; “redeposited pollen” was a problem for North America as well as Europe. She liked to tackle “head-on” problems people were raising about using fossil pollen. In North America, more natural vegetation provided an advantage that Europeans did not have. She studied a place with pollen in Tertiary sediments.

“This early work encouraged me to think that the real questions which people had about palynology needed to be tackled head-on if we were going to make progress with this field and that we shouldn’t assume that everything was already known from European sites which were clearly very different from ours. . . we had so much natural vegetation in North America compared to northern Europe . . .”

Roles of women in science during her career

From the start, Margaret was discouraged to pursue science, even by her father, but she started by washing dishes as a sophomore at Radcliff. At that time, she soon learned that she would have to go to graduate school, and she did. As time went on, she felt that she was not treated equally. She went to Harvard where there was only one female professor (of medieval history) in the whole university. Her impression was that it would not be easy for women to succeed in her field, but she was determined. For a while, she thought that she would get a job somewhere as a lab assistant. She had three years of post-doctoral experience, but women in about 1960 had a hard time getting a faculty position, and when they did, the salary was less than for men for comparable work. A woman post-doc was always paid less than a man, which “was insulting.”

She eventually became a tenured half-time faculty member and a half research associate at Michigan, and she then was able to take on students, which she enjoyed very much, and she had some “brilliant students” working with her, which helped her develop her program in palynology. But the salary was not equal. When she was promoted to full professor, she filed a complaint about equitable salaries, and her salary was made equal. Later though, even when she was in her 60s, her salary dropped again to be lower than it should have been.

Jane, one of her students at the time, enjoyed being involved with Margaret’s informal classes, reading and commenting on papers. Everyone working in her lab was invited, whether working on an advanced degree or not.

How has ecology changed over the years?

Ecology was somewhat “esoteric” when she first learned about it, with a natural history focus, and ecologists were not thinking about large spatial scales. Also, “it was a stretch” for ecologists to think about long temporal scales, as paleoecologists were doing. But human exploitation led to more focus on environmental impacts, e.g., humans fixing more N than N-fixing plants, on a larger scale. Now there’s much more focus on human impacts, and how they can be reversed. Ecology has become more involved with applied problems, and many more ecologists now are involved.

“[Research showed that humans are now fixing more nitrogen] than all the legumes in the whole world, and this was really a rather staggering realization. . . humans are dominating the biochemistry of the earth and causing some real problems . . . We need to understand better what we are doing, we need to understand the scale of natural processes, and we need to understand how we can reverse some of this . . .”

Development of ESA

ESA has tried to meet this challenge of living on Earth with much more professional staff and with large meetings at convention centers, so it’s much different now than when she first became involved. ESA has become more “all-inclusive” and there is a desire to engage others by communicating with the public. It’s not easy to convince people that the effects can be serious when there is widespread skepticism about the severity of the problems.

There’s a much greater concern about communicating with the public and engaging the public in trying to do something about the problems.

What memories does she have about her time as ESA president?

One ESA member wanted to write an op-ed on the effects of genetically engineered organisms, but the letter had to be approved by everyone on the board, which took too long to be effective. So there was talk about how to respond in a more timely way, for this and other similar problems as they came up. Some progress was made.

There also was a lot of discussion about how to involve more students in ecology, in general biology courses, and what should be covered. ESA’s Education Section was formed and is very active now. The Section developed some ecology exercises for general biology courses. A committee eventually published a book on those ecological exercises, which she used in an ecology course that she was teaching; others used some of them in general biology courses. She liked taking a hands-on approach to teaching, rather than just lecturing the students. Some of the experiments were very imaginative. She feels proud that this part of ESA’s program began while she was president. She had the impression that not much ecology was included in labs in general biology courses at that time. Jane noted that now these exercises are available online.

Anything more?

At the end of the interview, Margaret adds that ESA meetings now are attended by many students, and many of them are women. That’s very different than when she started when students were in the minority. Also, in recent decades there have been numerous women elected to the office of ESA president, and they are very active in other prominent positions.






Oral History Item Type Metadata



33 minutes


Margaret Davis and Jane Beiswenger, “Interview with Margaret Davis, June 10, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed April 16, 2024,