Davis’s most significant public undertaking was his involvement in the campaign to establish a public lunatic asylum in Columbia.

Physician, planter, legislator. The first physician to the South Carolina State Hospital, Davis was born on December 8, 1774, in Worcester County, Maryland, the son of Solomon Davis and Mary Smock. He moved to Laurens District, South Carolina, in 1784 and trained as a physician under George Ross between 1795 and 1797. On June 27, 1799, Davis married Catherine Ross, the daughter of his mentor. The couple had eight children. About 1800 Davis moved to Union District, where he founded the Union Library Society. From 1804 to 1808 he served as a state senator from Union. Around 1810 he moved to Columbia, where he established a successful medical practice, became a director of the Columbia branch of the Bank of the State of South Carolina, and was active in civic affairs.

Davis’s most significant public undertaking was his involvement in the campaign to establish a public lunatic asylum in Columbia. In this quest he was allied with Samuel Farrow and William Crafts, the two men usually credited with the establishment of the institution. Davis was involved in the asylum campaign for several years before the General Assembly voted funds for its construction in 1821. Subsequently he served on the commission that oversaw its construction, a slow, controversial process that involved significant cost overruns. He also sat on the board of trustees that brought it into operation after the construction was finished and served as its first physician between 1828 and 1835. Daniel Trezevant, who succeeded him as physician, claimed that credit for the asylum belonged to Davis as much as to Farrow and Crafts.

During the asylum’s first years, Davis wrote many letters and essays in the public press encouraging people to support the institution. The early years of the asylum’s existence were difficult, both financially and in terms of securing enough patients, adequate staff, and even basic amenities. At times the asylum was unable to purchase enough clothing, bedding, and food for the patients. Mortality and recovery rates were worse than in the later antebellum period. The recovery rate during Davis’s period of tenure, nineteen percent, was much lower than the eighty to ninety percent he and other asylum advocates had predicted. Davis was often ill during his tenure as asylum physician, and for several months in 1833 and 1834 he was unable to attend to his duties. He resigned in January 1835 and died in Fairfield District on August 4, 1838. He was buried in the First Presbyterian Churchyard, Columbia.

Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.

McCandless, Peter. Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Obituary. Columbia Southern Times and State Gazette, August 17, 1838. Trezevant, Daniel. Letters to His Excellency Governor Manning on the Lunatic

Asylum. 1854. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1973.

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Citation Information

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  • Article Title Davis, James
  • Author Peter McCandless
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/davis-james/
  • Access Date December 14, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date May 17, 2016
  • Date of Last Update September 14, 2016