J.J. Davis (2000)

By today’s standards, Professor John June (J.J.) Davis would be considered a hero, a martyr, perhaps even a revolutionary. However, a victim of his time, some of Davis’ colleagues thought he was nuts.

Head of the entomology department at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., and a successful agricultural entomologist, Davis gambled with his reputation in 1935 when he boarded a train to attend the Third Annual Convention of the National Association of Exterminators and Fumigators (known today as the National Pest Management Association, or NPMA).

Considered mavericks, those in the structural pest management industry were not highly regarded by the professional world at that time, and Davis’ colleagues branded him insane to associate with such people. Davis, however, thought differently.

“In the 1930s, J.J. got to know a lot of pest management professionals (PMPs) in the United States and around the country. He saw it as an emerging area that needed more training and education so PMPs could do their jobs better,” explains Dr. Gary Bennett, coordinator for Purdue’s Center for Urban and Industrial Pest Management.

Years later, Davis, still diligently studying and working with urban entomology, suggested establishing a structural pest management curriculum at Purdue—a first for higher education. Needless to say, the suggestion wasn’t meant with cheers.

“He had a vision, if you will, of urban pest management and got it started when no other university would associate itself with the pest management industry. Other universities felt PMPs were so unscientific, untrained and ill-prepared that they sort of shunned them,” says Bennett.

Dr. John Osmun, a 1997 Pest Control Hall of Fame inductee who met Davis at the national association’s 1947 convention, was personally recruited by Davis to create the aspired pest management curriculum.

“He was a very solid, understanding person who had specific goals in life, and he was always looking for someone to join him in the answer for those goals,” Osmun says.

Fortunately, Osmun shared Davis’ dream, and set out to help him “put principles into pest management.”

“He led me to believe that I could accomplish any goal that he and I set together,” Osmun tells Pest Control. “He established a lasting philosophy in me that goals should be set and should be carried out.”

Their goal was realized in the fall of 1948. The new curriculum included two basic courses (urban and industrial insects) and two applied practical courses (insecticides and their formulations, and vertebrate pest management). At that time, Purdue was the only university to offer such a four-year major—a reason why Davis gained both respect and notoriety within the industry.

“They all loved him, and as far I know, he was accepted from the beginning,” Osmun affirms. “He was their friend and inspiration.”

His Own Inspiration

When Davis came to the University of Illinois in 1902, he had uncertain career goals. Then he took an entomology course from Dr. Justus Folsom, and found his passion.
Davis graduated with special honors in entomology in 1907. During his schooling, he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega social fraternity, as well as a charter member of the Entomological Society of America (ESA). His senior thesis on aphids was published as a technical bulletin by the U.S. Bureau of Entomology.

Upon graduation, he was hired by the Illinois Natural History Survey to conduct a study on corn insects. After three months, he was transferred to the Chicago area to work on pests of fresh produce crops, as well as greenhouse and ornamental pests.

In 1911, Davis joined the Bureau of Entomology of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was put in charge of its Cereal and Forage Insect Laboratory. In 1919, he was placed in charge of the U.S. Entomology Bureau’s Japanese Beetle Laboratory in Riverton, N.J.

Yet, Davis had one more move he wanted to make. In 1920, he quit his New Jersey job, relocating to Indiana to serve as Purdue’s entomology department head.

Once at Purdue, Davis began to settle into a daily routine that would span 36 years. Every year, he taught an introductory entomology course, and continued his crusade to increase the professionalism of the pest management industry.

“He was dedicated to teaching,” Osmun says. “That was his continual contact with students because he thought the world of them.”

The feeling was mutual. Known for being a tireless worker and productive researcher, Davis is remembered for taking the steps two at a time to his office, and working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. Osmun still marvels at the energy the man exhibited.

“On my first day on the job, he helped me carry my desk up two flights of stairs,” Osmun says. At the time, Davis was 63 years old.

Davis was also known for his storytelling, and had a new joke every morning for his colleagues. In 1937, his book, The Entomologist Joke Book, was published by the Exterminator’s Log, today known as Pest Control.

One of his favorite pastimes was opening mail. Davis, a diligent letter writer, was committed to carrying on correspondence with friends, former students and those in the industry. He often stayed in his office until dark, answering mail.

“He usually got his mail at 10 a.m., and if we were meeting with him, he concluded that meeting almost immediately because he wanted to open it,” Osmun chuckles.

Davis was such a serious writer that at one time he had more than 100 correspondents. During World War II, he wrote to many of his students overseas. One of his favorite correspondents was 1998 Pest Control Hall of Fame Inductee Bill Buettner, a PMP he had met during his first visit to the national association in 1935.

Even Buettner, an equally dedicated correspondent, had a hard time keeping up with Davis’ letters. Industry Consultant and Pest Control Columnist Dr. Austin Frishman, who was hired to get Davis’ affairs in order, was amazed at all the letters and mementos Davis kept.

“He had all kinds of letters from former presidents and senators,” says Frishman. “He never threw anything away, and I mean anything. He even kept the scrap of paper on which he scribbled a note to his secretary.”

Practicing What He Preached

When Davis wasn’t working in his office, he was most likely working on the road. Known for carrying out his own pest management programs while staying in hotels, one common ritual was to treat his hotel sheets with pyrethrum dust each night before he went to bed.

One of his more unusual rituals was that when he arrived at his hotel, he’d call local pest management companies and pose as a customer. He would then proceed to ask questions about treatment, trying to uncover unethical practices.

Osmun, who traveled with him often, confirms the obsession.

“We would hardly be in the hotel room before he would grab the phone book and start flipping through the Yellow Pages,” he laughs. “He wanted to test the companies, and boy, did he go after them if they didn’t seem to be providing ethical business practices.”

Watchdog Davis was also responsible for organizing the Indiana Pest Control Association (IPCA). Bennett, who is currently secretary/treasurer of the association, says the organization still speaks fondly of its founding father. Most remember him as an unselfish man who arranged for Purdue to be the association’s headquarters.

Davis also started the annual Purdue University pest management conference. Additionally, he served as an intermediary to the entomologists, and taught PMPs how to get results from their land grant institutions. Even after Davis retired, Frishman remembers, he was determined to attend the conference and take the annual photograph of those who attended.

“It was one year before he died and he was very sick, but he wanted to go to the conference. So he got dressed and I drove him over there and when he got out, it was like the king had arrived. Everyone was cheering and jumping up and down. That is how much they loved him,” Frishman says.

Davis also remained involved in entomology. He was secretary/treasurer of the ESA from 1926 to 1931, and was president in 1932. He helped establish 4-H Club insect programs, rodent control conferences and an airplane sprayer and dusters conference. Well-published, he also wrote more than 200 scientific and semi-technical articles.

All Business, All the Time

Davis dedicated his life to the pest management industry. The workhorse had no hobbies besides attending conventions, which he loved, laughs Osmun.

“From the time I knew him, he paid very little attention to anything except urban entomology. He was an academic father. He represented education,” he adds.

Osmun says Davis was a true leader of his time, someone who knew how to delegate, and knew how to make a person feel special.

“He and I maintained daily communication every day we worked together—that was the wonderful thing about him. He was a pseudo father to me,” he explains.

While a father figure to many students, Davis had no children, except a grown stepson from his fourth wife. In cleaning Davis’ office after his death, Frishman discovered that Davis had been married to Annie Oakley’s daughter. He also recalls the many stories his fourth wife, Mary, shared about her husband, including how they met and eventually married.

“Basically, Davis went up to Mary and bluntly said, ‘We should get married,’ although they hadn’t even been on one date,” Frishman laughs. “Then after dating awhile, they got married.”

Osmun says the Davises were loving people who opened their home to him, a tradition Davis took from his favorite entomology professor, Dr. Folsom. At one time, even 1998 Pest Control Hall of Fame Inductee Bill Brehm, a student who went on to co-invent the compressed air sprayer, stayed with Davis.

A tireless advocate, Davis continued his relentless pursuit to educate PMPs, even after he retired from Purdue in 1956. Frishman tells Pest Control that Davis was determined to work even though he was dying.

“Knowing him was an unbelievable opportunity for me to reach back into the history of pest control,” he says. “Because of him I have 100 years of knowledge, and the best thing about him, was that he made everything seem so exciting.”

Frishman reveals that Davis was so beloved by PMPs that they bought the often financially struggling man gifts, including a new car. By the time Davis died of a heart attack in 1965, Osmun says those who once questioned his motives, now admired him.

Davis changed the way the pest management industry was viewed forever, because “he dared to step where others wouldn’t go,” Osmun says.

In fact, Osmun says Davis is responsible for reshaping the pest management industry’s image, and is quite deserving of his induction into the Pest Control Hall of Fame.

“If you want to go back to the roots of modern urban and industrial pest management, then you have to go back to J.J. Davis,” Osmun states. “He helped the industry gain respect, and the fact that he was willing to dedicate his life to the industry tells a big story.”

  1. #1 by William (Bill) Merrill on July 19, 2017 - 8:26 pm

    My father, Allen Merrill, was a stepson of JJ Davis. In the 1920’s , Allen ‘s mother and father divorced in Terre Haute, Indiana. Her name was Margaret Elizabeth. My father along with his sister Marjory moved to Lafayette. A few short years later Margaret had a brain aneurysm and died. It would have been around 1929. My father and his sister moved back to Terre Haute. He told me a little about JJ through the years . Saying he was a wonderful person and would take him on trips in the field. I wish I would have known of the dedication and statue. I plan on visiting it soon. Bill Merrill

    • #2 by William (Bill) Merrill on July 19, 2017 - 8:33 pm

      I forgot to state Margaret and JJ married after the divorce of Allen’s dad and Margaret . I have no information about how they met , just that they moved to Lafayette

      • #3 by PMP Staff on July 20, 2017 - 10:13 am

        Thank you for these insights about Prof. Davis, Bill! We knew he married later in life, but did not realize he had stepchildren as a result. It’s great to hear he was a great figure in their lives as much as he was for many entomologists and pest professionals of the era. —The Eds.

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