07/01/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of

"John Davey is a genius, for a genius is one who has the faculty of abandonment to an idea, or a cause... with the innocence of childhood, and the intellect of a man." Elbert Hubbard(1927)

I've wanted to tell the story of John Davey for a very long time. Not just because he was my grandfather, but because his is an amazing tale about a man who, against all odds, revolutionized the world's thinking about our natural world and the environment. You've probably never heard of him.

Moreover, as a psychoanalyst, I've been fascinated by the character and personality of this man. Through our rich and colorful family records and photographs, but most of all, from his own extensive writing, I feel that John Davey's passion for nature jumps off the page and wraps around the reader's heart. In this five-part series, I hope it does the same for you.

From my earliest childhood, I was enthralled by my own father's stories about his father. Oddly enough, since my father was 30 years older than my mother, my grandfather was actually old enough to have been my great-grandfather. Though John died in 1923, our family life seemed permeated by the gentle spirit of this remarkable man. He was kept so alive in my father's memory - and the stories he told us - that my grandfather seemed to share our daily lives.

I hope that I, as my father did, can bring the essence of John Davey's personality to life once again. Because the world has changed so drastically in the 167 years since John's birth, it's necessary to put his life in the context of the world into which he was born. Raised in rural England, he didn't learn to read or write until he was 21. Yet, after years of hard work and scientific study, he would come to be recognized internationally as a genius.

Not that "Father John," as everyone called him, would have cared one bit about fame or fortune, except for when it furthered his cause of protecting the natural environment. In fact, he was known for being clueless and oblivious to concerns about money. But as his youngest grandchild, I would like to see him where I think he belongs - seated at the table with other famous environmentalists, such as John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, George Washington Carver, and Rachel Carson.

It's shocking to realize that, in my grandfather's time, most people didn't perceive the whole earth as a living organism, but he did. He believed that everything is connected to everything else, and he was often called "crazy" for these beliefs. Nevertheless, John Davey spent 50 years of scientific research - fueled by his love of nature - and finally developed the science of tree surgery. He maintained that given the proper environment, trees can live longer than humans, and sometimes for thousands of years. This revolutionary idea made him famous.

You might find this hard to believe, but 100 years ago, John Davey was a household name. The young Dr. Seuss drew the following cartoon honoring my grandfather:


In 1924, a bestselling book of that year was Fifty Famous Farmers, in which John Davey was named and discussed along with such people as John Deere, Eli Whitney, Cyrus McCormick, Luther Burbank, and Gifford Pinchot. Having died just months before this book went to press, John didn't live to read what the authors wrote about him: "Probably no man has been more sincerely mourned than John Davey, when he died very suddenly on November 8, 1923."

And that's the point of my story, really. No matter where I look for information about him, I find that my grandfather was universally admired and idealized.

By now, you might be thinking that my grandfather sounds too good to be true. This is probably due to our modern age of cynicism and the fact that so many of our idealized public figures have been shown to have feet of clay. But John Davey was not too good to be true. He was that rarest of people - a man who was what he seemed to be.

And every day his fame grew. In 1943, a Liberty ship named the SS John Davey carried troops and supplies back and forth across the Atlantic, hauling tons of cargo to war fronts for 2 ½ years without being hit by the enemy. She had a great war record.

In the late 1950's, the Emmy-award-winning comedy writer Jack Douglas naughtily quipped, "Did you hear about the time Dr. Davey fell 14 feet out of one of his patients?"

Despite this, nowadays I realize that most people no longer know my grandfather's name, other than perhaps being familiar with the Davey Tree Expert Company, founded in 1904 by John Davey and his sons. The company is now employee-owned, and still has a reputation for excellence. What an appropriate legacy for my grandfather - an extraordinary man living in an extraordinary time, who, when he died, left behind a much better and more beautiful world.

So now, I'd like to share his story with you.

John Davey was born in 1846 at Stawley in Somersetshire, England. The child of earnest parents of the agricultural middle-class, John learned early on many of the lessons that can only be learned on a farm. From all accounts, the family was typical of the hardy rural stock and simple living of his time. There were no telephones, radios, televisions, or movies, nor were there schools, or even books.

From his father Samuel Davey, John inherited a passion for thoroughness and the satisfaction to be gained from a job well done. Samuel was practical, hard working, and energetic, although not highly imaginative or emotional. A devout Christian, Samuel was a farm manager for William Sweet, Esquire, whose descendants still live in the charming cottage where my grandfather was born.

While Samuel was pragmatic and frugal, his wife Anne was intensely imaginative and a thorough romanticist. An equally devout member of the Church of England, she taught her family religion, and seemed to see and feel the beauties of nature. As such, I imagine her as a kind of muse to her son John, who adored her. She always encouraged her family to be curious, to challenge, and to learn. In the case of John, these seeds of wisdom fell on the fertile ground of a curious mind, where they grew and flourished to become an integral part of him. And it was his memory of his mother's love that sustained him through the times of great sorrow, loneliness, and struggle that were to come.

From our personal family records, in his own words, my grandfather tells the story of the first important milestone in his life:

I was nearly four years old. My father was planting potatoes, in front of our neat little cottage, on a fine May evening. I asked him if I could plant some. He opened up a trench at the end nearest the house. Then took a potato and said: "If I let you plant it, will you do it RIGHT?" "I will do what you tell me." Then, looking at me tenderly, he said, with a firm voice: "YOU MUST DO IT RIGHT, or NOT AT ALL." He then went into the house and brought out a big iron spoon, and remarked: "Here is your shovel; keep it clean." He then cut the potato in two and made a mark for each piece, telling me I must put the cut-side down, and went on to his work. I carefully laid the two halves in place, then took my shovel and looked at (what appeared to me) a big ditch that I had to fill!

Well, by sun-down I had this huge hole filled, and father showed me where I could improve on the level, or grade. After saying my little prayers I retired, but father's voice was heard: "Do it right or not at all." In the morning I awoke, and still that voice was ringing, "Do it RIGHT, or not at all."

Then came those long days of waiting. "Will they never come up?" A heavy rain packed the ground. Then I was presented with a new garden implement, a steel table fork; but it must be kept clean. With it I must keep the soil stirred. Finally a gentle rain came, and, next morning, the ground was cracking and mother told me, "Two little baby plants will be born." And the next day; what a miracle! It was not two plants, but two groups of TRIPLETS, six newborn plants! Then came the instructions, "never let the ground pack, keep it loose," and in hot weather, I would hear mother calling: "Johnnie, your plants are thirsty; come and give them a drink." Then she would get me a little pail with water, and a little tin cup, and oh! how my plants would drink! And they grew and went away ahead of any of dad's; and when the crop was dug, he had nothing that could compare with mine! I did it "RIGHT."

And this, according to my grandfather, was exactly the day when a little scientist was born!

To be continued in Part II: John Davey: Nature Becomes His Family