This section is under review for historical accuracy. Please check back for an updated version
The Davidson Black’s family history in Canada begins in 1840 when it arrived in Montreal, settling later in the Whitby area in Canada West. The patriarch’s son, the first Davidson Black, was born in England in 1825. He graduated from University College in the University of Toronto with a BA in 1867, even though the only recorded information of his attendance is that he took a third year civil polity (pass) course in 1865-1866. In 1869 he was admitted as a student-at-law to Osgoode Hall. He was sworn in as an attorney on 23 November 1871 and was called to the bar in 1872. Soon thereafter Davidson set up shop at 17 Toronto Street with two younger lawyers who had been fellow students at University College, Thomas Dawson Delamere and Henry Arthur Reesor; the firm was called Delamere, Black and Reesor. Thomas Delamere was the eldest son of a family of four boys and two girls that had emigrated from Ireland to Toronto in 1852. His youngest sister, Margaret Bowes (born in 1850), an organist, was a beauty who caught the eye of Davidson. He proposed to her in October 1878 and she accepted. Her mother and Tom’s approval was muted, but brothers Harry and Joe were enthusiastic. Davidson and Margaret married at end of December 1879 and settled in Toronto where their two sons were born, Redmond in 1880 and Davidson William on 25 July 1884.
This ordered family life was disrupted on 12 July 1886 when Davidson dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 61. Margaret resolved to be independent and refused to move in with any members of her family. But, knowing she would have to find employment, she accepted Tom’s help in getting a position in Osgoode Hall. She moved her boys into a smaller house at 3 Anderson Street and got on with life. She never remarried. Over the years she and Davidson established a close bond of understanding that is revealed in his voluminous letters to her; his first letters home are dated 1891. In March 1907, with her boys having left home (Redmond to become a banker) Margaret moved to 46 Avenue Road and a few years later to 52 Avenue Road where she resided for the rest of her life. In February 1913 she changed her surname officially to Davidson-Black. In July 1922, she was struck by a car after alighting from a streetcar and fractured her skull. It was the fourth accident she had suffered in recent years. In March 1923, she wrote to Davidson that she had done every job at Osgoode Hall and would like any position that would give her enough money to live on and a pension after 37 years of service there. She died of a stroke in Toronto on 14 September 1929.
Redmond Black was sometimes referred to as “Gov” by himself and his family. He worked for the Dominion Bank for most of his life, in various locations mostly in Ontario including Oshawa, Napanee, Belleville, Huntsville, Seaforth, Hespeler and Dresden. He and his wife, Grace, had three children, Redmond, Harold and Gay. Redmond enlisted and was sent to Durban, South Africa in spring 1902 as part of the Halifax contingent of the Canadian Mounted Rifles during the South African (Boer) War. In 1916 he served as a senior commanding officer in the 110th Perth County Battalion, and later as part of the 8th Canadian Reserve Battalion, St. Martin’s Plain, Shorncliffe, Kent.
Davidson William Black, who was known as “Dyo” to his family and “Kid” to his brother Redmond, never used his middle name. He attended the Model School on Gerrard Street. During his fourteenth year he was bedridden with rheumatic fever. As he entered his teens, he made frequent summer trips as a “chore boy” with his maternal uncles to Minden in the Kawartha Lakes, where he learned the importance of keeping detailed and accurate notes. He also developed an interest in ornithology, as surviving notebooks attest. He attended the Wellesley School before entering, in 1899, Harbord Collegiate Institute. At the latter he took courses in art and became a good amateur artist. As an adult, he composed small sketches of anything that interested him; many of these accompanied his correspondence. To finance his dream of taking medicine, he took summer jobs in the Huntsville and Minden areas. In October 1902, he registered as a matriculant in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, thus bypassing the matriculation examinations as he entered the four-year course in medicine at the University of Toronto. He graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine (MB) in 1906 with a pass standing. One of his fellow students, who became a good friend, was Edmund Vincent Cowdry, who later played a role in Davidson’s joining the Peking Union Medical College.
During the summer of 1906 Davidson worked at the Hudson’s Bay Company post on the Mattagami River and also served as an Ontario forest ranger in the Biscotasing area. In 1907 he acquired a miner’s licence and permission to prospect in the Temagami Forest Reserve. With the encouragement of Professor A. B. Macallum, he entered the Honour Arts programme at University College in the fall of 1906, “to widen his horizon and stimulate his powers of exploration and expression” . There he took courses in English, scientific French and German, world history and biology, and indulged in the athletic pastimes of boxing and fencing. Professor W. H. Piersol taught him “the principles and manipulations used in the preparation of material for microscopic examination” and stated he was “a terrifically hard worker”. Although his very amusing biographical sketch for the Class of 0T9 appears in the 1909 volume of Torontonensis, the undergraduate yearbook, he did not finally convocate until June 1911.
Dr. Black’s education continued in subsequent years. In June 1924 he was awarded a Master of Arts degree for his thesis, ‘The motor nuclei of the cerebral nerves in phylogeny. A study of the phenomenon of neurobiotaxis.’ In October 1927, with the upgrading of undergraduate medical degree from Bachelor of Medicine (MB), he was awarded an MD (Doctorate of Medicine).
Black spent the summer of 1909 back at Biscotasing, then headed for Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he had accepted a lectureship in the Department of Anatomy. While there he as much spare time as he could “visiting and working in the laboratories of famous institutions”. He was also able to study the specimens in the University’s large skeletal museum. During the summer holidays, he found employment with the Geological Survey of Canada where he acquired the “practical knowledge of structural and stratigraphical geology that subsequently amazed the geologists with whom he worked in connection with his later paleontological studies.” In the summer of 1911 he again went prospecting and on July 11 got caught in the great Porcupine fire. More than a week passed before he could wire his mother, “Am sending this for fear you have been worrying about us. We are all OK…” He had spent two nights standing in Porcupine Lake and was given government relief supplies and a free trip home.
The arrival in 1912 of T. Wingate Todd from the University of Manchester meant that Davidson was exposed to the former’s new ideas “as an interpreter of man’s relation to the anthropoids and on human evolution generally.” Early in 1913 Black was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy, and the first of his scientific articles appeared.
Early in the summer of 1912 Davidson visited his Delamere cousins at their summer house on Balsam Lake in the Kawartha Lakes near Coboconk. There he became reacquainted with Adena Nevitt, whom he had first met some years before at Go Home Bay. They were married in Toronto on 27 December 1913, with an old Delamere family friend, the Venerable Archdeacon Hill, officiating.
Adena (“Adna” in her student records) Sara Nevitt was the younger daughter of Dr. Richard Barrington Nevitt, an American who had been sent north for his education during the Civil War. He graduated from Trinity College in Toronto with a BA in 1871, and entered Trinity Medical School that fall. His formal medical education was interrupted by the opportunity to serve as an assistant surgeon in the original squadron of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police as it marched west from Fort Garry to Fort McLeod in 1872-1873. He then returned to Toronto to complete his medical degree at Trinity (MB 1874, MD 1882). In 1883 he was a founder of the Ontario Medical College for Women and president and dean until its merger with the University of Toronto in 1906. He was also a member of the Trinity College Corporation. All but two (Richard A. and Bertram, who was killed at Courcelette in France in 1916) of the six children of Dr. Nevitt and his wife, Elizabeth Beaty, a daughter of the co-founder of the Leader, attended university. Robert Barrington received his BA in 1900 from Trinity, and his MA in 1901, while Irving Howard entered the School of Practical Science, where he got his diploma in 1903 and his BASc in 1904. Mary Louise received her BA from Trinity in 1901. Robert became an Anglican clergyman and died in England in 1918. Irving became a sanitary engineer (died 1963), while Mary (died 1953) married the Reverend George Egerton Ryerson, who was an Anglican missionary in Japan from 1900 to 1917 before settling in England in 1923.
Adena attended Miss Veal’s School before entering Trinity College in 1901, from which she received her BA 1904. During their first year of marriage, she and Davidson were apart for several months; his vacation job was with the Geological Survey of Canada in British Columbia, while she travelled across Canada by rail to spend the summer in Japan. In the spring of 1914 Davidson took a leave of absence from Western Reserve and he and Adena travelled to England where he took a short course from Grafton Elliot Smith, his colleague Todd’s old chief at the University of Manchester. Smith had spent seven years in Egypt studying ancient skeletons and was then working on the reconstruction of the skull of the Piltdown Man. Black was fascinated by this field of work and became determined to devote his life to it. He re-directed his energy to the study of comparative anatomical material, becoming skilled at cast making, and studied the geological literature essential to his work. Black and Smith got on very well and the latter introduced him to colleagues in London, including Arthur Berridale Keith, Frederick Wood Jones and Arthur Smith Woodward. Smith also recommended him for a position at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Black also met a young Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was interested in the Piltdown Man controversy and later took an active part in archaeological research in China.
Early in the summer of 1914 Black and Adena went to Amsterdam where, at Elliott Smith’s suggestion, Black worked under the guidance of the distinguished neurologist, Ariëns Kappers. They began a long association which was of considerable value to Black in his writings about the nervous systems in man and neuroanatomy. The Blacks remained in the city for a week after the declaration of war, then returned to London and sailed home. Black’s attempt to enlist was rebuffed because of the slight heart murmur he had had all his life. So he returned to Western Reserve where he remained until the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917.
The Blacks then moved back to Toronto, where Davidson enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 27 July 1917 and was assigned to the Canadian Army Medical Corps with the rank of captain. He was attached to the Divisional Laboratory of Military District 2 from 1 September 1917 to 21 June 1918. Four days later he sailed for England where he was assigned to the CAMC Training Division at Risborough Barracks, Shorncliffe, in Kent. He remained there from 15 July to 30 August 1918, when he was given a week’s leave of absence to go to London to discuss the offer of an appointment to the Department of Anatomy at the Peking Union Medical College being established by the Rockefeller Foundation. He accepted the offer, generously backdated to June 1918 but to be taken up when he was released from military service. He then moved to the Canadian General Laboratory at Whitley Military Camp in Surrey, one of three in the Aldershot Command area established by the Canadian Army. He remained there until 2nd February 1919. Three weeks later he was back in Canada.
The following months were spent preparing for departure to China (Adena’s notes on items packed has survived). The Blacks left Toronto on 15 August by train for San Francisco, where they boarded the S.S. Ecuador for China. They arrived in Beijing on 21 September. It was there that their son, Davidson, was born on 12 March 1921, (Their daughter, Nevitt, was born on 2 October 1925.) Black familiarized himself with his surrounding by a series of local trips, especially to the Western Hills. His family also discovered Peitaiho, the popular Chinese summer holiday retreat, where they escaped the furnace-like heat of Peking in summer.
Black found his colleagues very agreeable; amongst them his old friend from university days, E. V. Cowdry, head of the Department of Anatomy at PUMC, George B. Barbour, and J. Gunnar Andersson. It was the last, with his expertise in local geology, and Black who were to lay the foundation for prehistoric research in China. Other colleagues included Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Dr. A. W Grabau, Professor of Palaeontology in the National University of Peking, became a mentor and from whom Black learned about a 1903 discovery of an ancient tooth, possibly that of a primitive man. In 1921 Cowdry resigned and Black replaced him. He emphasized the importance of physical anthropology as he built up his department and turned it into a well-equipped anthropological laboratory, in spite of initially finding little support in his attempt to promote anthropological research. He retained this position until his death and was admired by his Chinese colleagues for treating them with an equality that was rare at that time.
Black’s pursuit of evidence of the origins of man began almost immediately. In March 1920, he went to Kalgan, the terminus of the principal caravan route to Mongolia; this was followed in June and July by his first field expedition to investigate cave burials. His preliminary paper on the human skeletal remains in the Neolithic cave deposits at Shakoutun, was published that autumn, his first anthropological paper based on research in the field. The failure of some of his early expeditions, such as one to Jehol and the caves of the Lan River, caused him to look elsewhere; in 1923 he went to Siam as he believed man had migrated from the south. Though this trip proved fruitless, Black did not give up. He established a good working relationship with Dr. Wong Weng-hao who headed the recently formed Geological Survey of China. In 1922 he briefly joined (primarily to see Urga) the third Asiatic expedition of the American Museum of Natural History, which started in April from Kalgan for Mongolia, to study its zoology, paleontology, geology and botany and, if the press was to believed, discover the ‘Missing Link’. But it was Gunnar Andersson’s visit to in 1921 to the hills of Chou-K’ou-tien, twenty-five miles south-west of Beijing, and two years later to a spot near the local railway station, that really changed Black’s life. It was here in 1926 that Andersson’s expedition found an early Pleistocene tooth. Black was initially strongly criticized for regarding this as evidence of “Peking man”, but excavations under his direction at Chou-K’ou-tien began in 1927, with a two-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. They resulted in the discovery of more bone fragments and a skull by the Chinese geologists C. C. Young and W. C. Pei, and the confirmation of the validity of the genus Sinanthropus pekinensis which Black had named. His growing stature was recognized by the China Medical Board, now responsible for PUMC, the following year when it released him from teaching duties for three years from 1929 to pursue field research with what became an abortive mid-Asian expedition to Chinese Turkestan (the Swede, Sven Hedin, pulled out of an agreement and found funding for his own expedition).
In addition to their travels in Asia and within China (in addition to Siam, for example, they visited Hong Kong and Macau in 1930), the Blacks returned to Canada as often as they could. Staff at PUMC received a year’s leave every four years. Davidson took advantage of these furloughs to expand his professional experience, but some of their travels were occasioned by Davidson’s professional activities, others by the continuing civil turmoil in China. In 1923 Davidson had his first leave from PUMC; Adena arrived back in Toronto in June and he followed three months later, having escaped pirates on his journey. Adena used this opportunity to establish with Daisy and Marion Boulton of Toronto a business venture importing Chinese goods to Canada. This enterprise ran from 1924 to 1928, from which Adena made a good income. Between 1931 and 1934 she was associated with the trading firm, the Peking Temples Company.
At the end of 1923 Davidson was given a fellowship for travel and medical study in Europe, which he took advantage of to visit the leading medical authorities across Europe (his album of signed photographs is a memento of this trip). He returned to Toronto in August and the family headed back to Beijing. Adena was back in Toronto in April of 1927 with her children “owing to uprisings south of Pekin” (Davidson followed early in December). In April 1928 he attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Anatomists in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and visited old friends in Baltimore and New York. On 15 June 1928, Black and his family sailed to England. Davidson visited colleagues there and also in Europe. They returned to Toronto in August and early in October they left for China.
Back in China, in an attempt to obtain further financing, Black proposed to the Rockefeller Foundation the founding of a Cenozoic Research Laboratory to be linked to the Geological Survey of China. This would facilitate integrated field and laboratory work and extend the range of research. The Foundation agreed, provided $80,000 in funding, and Black brought V. K Ting of the Geological Survey of China in as an honorary director along with himself. The work of developing the fossils discovered at Chou-K’ou-tien “was carried out by Black himself with superb technical skill. Not only did he clean the fossils and photograph them himself, but also he made the excellent casts which have enabled workers in the rest of the world who could not see the fossils themselves, to form a very exact idea of their nature.”
In 1932 Black went on leave again, travelling overland through northern India, Afghanistan, Persia, and Iraq to Palestine and Egypt. Adena and the children went by ship to Vancouver while he sailed to Calcutta, meeting them back in Canada. He then made a quick trip to London on news that he had been elected to the Royal Society. On 8 December he delivered its Croonian Lecture, the first Canadian to do so. The family then returned to China. In June 1933 he was back in Canada to attend the Fifth Pacific Science Congress in Vancouver, where the possibility of an expedition the next year to the Yangtze with George Barbour and Teilhard de Chardin was discussed, with initial preparations being carried out in the spring of 1934.
As word of Black’s findings spread, he received many honours, the first being the Grabau Gold Medal of the Geological Survey of China (1929). This was followed in 1931 by the Daniel Giraud Eliot Medal and in 1932 he was awarded the King Gold Medal by the Peking Society of Natural History. He was made an honorary member or fellow of eight societies, including (in addition to the Royal Society) the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, DC), the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the National Institute of History and Philology, China.
Dr. Black was diagnosed with a serious heart condition in the fall of 1933 and spent a long time convalescing. A few days after he was allowed to return to work, he died in his office of a heart attack in the evening of 15 March 1934. For his obituary in Nature, G. Elliot Smith concluded, “In taking farewell of Davidson Black one regrets not only the loss of a friend of particular charm and generosity, but also the cutting short of the brilliant work in which he was engaged and which there is no one else competent to complete.”
Adena Black remained in China until the end of 1938 when she returned to Canada with Nevitt; Davy was already there. As the situation in China deteriorated, many others associated with the Peking University Medical College left as well. By the end of the 1930s, the Cenozoic Research Laboratory was a mere shell of what it had been. Adena died in Toronto at her home at 218 Cottingham Street on 4 May 1966.
Both of the Black children grew up fluent in Mandarin. Davidson was educated at the Peking American School from 1926 to 1936, except for 1932-1933 when he attended the preparatory school at Upper Canada College. From 1936 to 1940 he was at Ridley College in St. Catharines. He then spent a year at University College before entering medicine, receiving his MD from the U of T in 1946. Davidson married Lynne Sunderland (BA, Woodsworth College, 1985) on 18 January 1964. He died on 31 August 1988. Their son, Davidson (Davy) died on 15 March 2011 at the age of 42, 77 years to the day after his grandfather.
Nevitt attended the same school as her brother, beginning in 1931. Back in Toronto, she entered Bishop Strachan School before taking courses in Arts at Trinity College and in Medicine. She married John Ryerson Maybee, a native of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and a 1939 graduate of Trinity College (MA and PhD, Princeton), on 4 August 1945. He served with distinction in Canada’s diplomatic corps from 1945 to his retirement in 1978. He died in 2009, but she survives him and in 2013 is still active.