(b. Toronto, Canada, 25 July 1884; d. Peking, China, 15 March 1934)
By tradition Black’ family followed the law (his father was Queen’ Counsel), but early in life he showed a marked interest in biology and natural history. In 1903 he enrolled in the medical school of the University of Toronto, graduating in 1909 with M.D. and M.A. degrees. His first post was at Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, as anatomist; there he and T. Wingate Todd built up the museum of comparative anthropology and anatomy begun in 1893 by C.A. Hamann.
In 1914 Black went to Manchester, England, on sabbatical leave to study advanced anthropology under Grafton Elliot Smith. There he learned also to make casts, a skill that later proved valuable to him. Under Smith’ auspices in London he met Arthur Keith, Arthur Smith Woodward, and Frederick Wood Jones. From London he went to Amsterdam to study neuroanatomy under C.V. Arënas Kippers at the Central Institute of Brain Research. On his return to Cleveland he wrote his paper “Brain in Primitive Man” (1915).
Through his experience abroad and as the result of his intensive study of a treatise by William Diller Matthews, Climate and Evolution Black became convinced that Asia had probably been the realm of early man and the center of dispersal of land mammals. In 1920 he had the opportunity to explore this theory when he accepted an appoint unity to explore this theory when he accepted an appointment as anatomist and neurologist at the Peking Union Medical College. Always a tireless worker, in China, Black launched his brilliant career, teaching, writing, conducting field expeditions, and gathering about him as friends co-workers such men as J. Gunnar Andersson, Wong Wen-hao, V. K. Ting A. W. Grabau, C. C. Young, G. B. Barbour, and Teilhard de Cardin. His search for hominid fossils ook him to eastern Mongolia, the Desert, Siam, Honan, and Kansu, and finally concentrated twenty-five miles from Peking at Chou K’ou-tien in the western. Here extensive excavations were undertaken by the archaeologists, and Black studied all fossil-bearing material in the laboratories of the Peking Union Medical College.
In 1927 a well-preserved left molar was recovered, and after study Black pronounced a new hominid genus, which he named Sinanthropus pekinensis Black and Zansky. Under the archaeologist W.C. Pei the site yielded numerous teeth and pieces of jawbone with teeth in situ. On 1 December 1929, in a cave seventy feet below working level, an almost complete skull cap was found in an environment of extinct animal bones, crudely chipped stones, and man-made fires. In 1930 a second skull was recovered. Black himself freed the skulls of their heavy of travertine, made casts, and wrote his series of reports on the discovery, morphology, and environment of Sinanthropus pekinens. Among the scientists who flocked to Peking to consult with Black and to examine the fossils and the cave excavations were Henri Breuil, Walter Granger, Alěs Hedečha, and G. Elliot Smith.
In 1934 he died suddenly while working on Sinanthropus pekinensis.
Black was a fellow of the Royal Society of London and of the Geological Society of America, and an honorary member of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, as well as of other scientific organizations.
Black’s works include “Brain in Primitive Man,” in Cleveland Medical Journal, 14 (Mar. 1915), 177–185; “On a Lower Molar Hominid Tooth From the Chou Kou Tien Deposit,” in Palaeontologia Sinica, ser. D, 7, fase. I (Nov. 1927), 1–28; “Sinantharopus pekinensis: The Recovery of Further Fossil Remains of This Early Hominid From the Chou Kou Tien Deposit,” in Science, 69 , no. 1800 (June 1929). 674–676; “Preliminary Notice of the Discovery of an Adult Sinanthropus Skull at Choukoutien,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of china, 8 , no. 3 (1930) 207–230; “Notice of the Recovery of a Second Adult Sinanthropus Skull Specimen,” ibid., 9 , no. 2 (1930), 97–100; “On an Adolescent Skull of the Same Species and With other Hominid Skulls, Recent and Fossil,” in Palaenotologica Sinica, ser. D. 7 , fasc. 2 (1931), 1–144: “Present State of Knowledge Concerning the Morphology of Sinanthropus,” in Proceedings of the Fifth Pacific Science Congress (Vancouver, B.C., 1933); “Fossil Man in China: The Choukoutien Cave Deposits with a Synopsis of Our Present knowledge of the Late Cenozoic in china,” in Memories of the Geological Survey of china, ser. A, no. 11 (1933), 1–168, written with Teilhard de Chardin, C. C. Young, and W. C. Pei; and “On the Discovery, Morphology and Environment of Sinanthropus pekinensis,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B223 (1934), 57–120.
See also Dora Hood, Davidson Black, a Biography (Toronto, 1964).