Allen and Lenabelle Davis in 2007
November 1, 2017

Friend of Caltech Makes Landmark Gift to Build a Better World

“You ought to leave the world better than you found it,” engineer Allen Davis was known to say. And he did: Davis, who passed away at age 91 in 2015, left more than $60 million from his estate to Caltech.

Aiming to advance science and education for the benefit of humankind, Davis (pictured above with his wife, Lenabelle) directed his bequest to support endowed chairs for faculty, a top priority in Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. To date, Caltech has drawn on Davis’s gift to create four leadership chairs and one professorial chair.

“Allen Davis understood deeply that talented individuals empowered by unfettered resources can change the world for the better,” says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “His generosity permits scholars from across the disciplines to explore, discover, and invent, propelling forward the Caltech mission.”

Grateful Chair Holders Look to the Future

Davis, a Longstanding Caltech Associate, Promoted Discovery that Shaped Daily Life

Davis’s bequest was not his first contribution to improving the world. Air and space travel are safer today because of him. He founded companies that make sensors and switches that airlines, the military, and NASA use to manage fuel, oil, coolant, and hydraulic brakes and landing gear.

But Davis felt driven to do more. In 1977, his friend Ben Earl (BS ’44), a civil engineering graduate and builder who met Davis in a networking group for CEOs, invited him to join the Caltech Associates.

As a member of that group, Davis found a lasting opportunity to benefit humanity that enriched his life for decades. Since its founding in 1926, the Associates has gathered passionate learners—the majority of whom are not alumni—who support science, engineering, and education at Caltech.

Attending Associates and other campus events over the years, Davis and his wife, Lenabelle, who died in 2008, learned directly from faculty and students about discoveries coming out of Caltech, just miles from their La Cañada home.

Whenever the couple saw an opportunity to help that matched their interests, they jumped on it. During their lives, they funded research into neuroscience and geology, supported what were then new methods of testing economic theories in the lab, and endowed two professorships at Caltech.

The endowed professorships that Davis established during his life and through his bequest ensure that generations of scholars will have the support and freedom to develop and realize ideas that can make a difference in the world, as he himself advocated.

The leadership chairs his gift funded are an even more distinctive and powerful tool. Rather than providing salary and research support to benefit an individual scholar, these endowments generate discretionary funds that Caltech leaders can use to stimulate creativity, nurture nascent ideas, and respond to unforeseen opportunities throughout the area they direct.

Davis Inspired Professors He Knew

Allen and Lenabelle Davis in 2008

Professor Emeritus John Ledyard, who was the Allen and Lenabelle Davis Professor of Economics and Social Sciences from 2002 to 2016, remembers how a lunch with Davis (pictured left) changed his outlook. “He asked me what research I was working on. After I explained to him what mechanism design theory was and the deep questions I was trying to answer, he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you work on something really important, like solving world hunger?’

“At the time, I did not really take it very seriously since I thought I was working on something really important. But later it nagged at me—why not? Soon after, I was given an opportunity to work on the science behind economic approaches to reducing overfishing around the world. Thinking of Allen’s prodding, I jumped at the chance.”

Mary Kennedy, Caltech’s Allen and Lenabelle Davis Professor of Biology since 2002, recalls when Allen Davis came, unannounced, to a talk she gave about the biochemistry that helps our brains encode memories. The next day, he called her to ask if she needed anything for her lab. “I was thrilled and told him that we had been trying to raise money to purchase a particular instrument to use in a new series of studies. He arranged to buy us the instrument directly from the company!”