Lance Davis was born in Seattle on 3 November 1928, the son of a logger and a schoolteacher who was forced to give up work when she got married. Although his father was unemployed for much of the 1930s, he got a job with the Forest Service in 1941, and the whole family moved to Willard in the state of Washington.
Finishing high school close to the end of the Second World War, Professor Davis joined the navy. He served until 1948, took a first degree at the University of Washington and returned to the navy during the Korean War (1950-52). He later said that he had only majored in economics because a friend took him to the faculty office and got so involved in a flirtation with a secretary that they didn’t have time to visit the history faculty as well. Yet economics, often with a strong historical focus, was to prove the heart of Professor Davis’ life and work.
He studied for a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University from 1953 to 1955 and obtained his PhD in 1956, when he already had his first position at Purdue University. He remained there until 1968, when he moved to the California Institute of Technology as professor of economics, becoming the Mary Stillman Harkness professor of social science in 1980 and emeritus professor in 2005.
While still at Purdue, Professor Davis spent the academic year 1964-65 as a Guggenheim Fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford, working on material that eventually led to his 1987 book with Robert A. Huttenback, Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire: The Political Economy of British Imperialism, 1860-1912. It was also at Nuffield that he first saw the value of economists working closely with anthropologists and political scientists. He later proved crucial in establishing a major social sciences programme at Caltech.
At the centre of his research interests, Professor Davis once told an interviewer, was “long-term growth” and its link to “institutions, where institutions are defined as the set of rules that govern how agents can act, cooperate or compete”. His later books included In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 (with Robert E. Gallman and Karin Gleiter, 1997) and Evolving Financial Markets and International Capital Flows: Britain, the Americas, and Australia, 1865-1914 (with Robert E. Gallman, 2001).
Professor Davis died on 20 January.