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Ken Davis

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Biography

W. Kenneth (Ken) Davis (1918-2005), a chemical engineer, leader of the World Energy Council, former vice president of the National Academy of Engineering, former Deputy Secretary of Energy, and Bechtel Corporation executive, was born in Seattle, Washington. Davis studied chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, before transferring to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to become a chemical engineer. He received his B.S. in 1940 and M.S. in 1942 from MIT in chemical engineering.

In 1947, after working for several years in the research department of what is now the Chevron Oil Company, he joined Ford, Bacon & Davis (FB&D) in Chicago, a company that had won the contract to build the nation’s first nuclear engineering laboratory at Argonne, Illinois. Thus began Davis’s career in the field of nuclear energy. He left FB&D in 1949 to begin an academic career at the University of California, Los Angeles and developed courses in nuclear engineering. Early in his career at the UCLA, he took a one-year leave of absence and rejoined the Chevron to work on a radiation project for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

In the early 1950s, Davis was manager of development and engineering for a Standard Oil subsidiary. The subsidiary was building a pilot model of the Materials Testing Accelerator at what was to become the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The accelerator, which was never completed, was designed to produce large amounts of plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons.

Davis moved to the nonmilitary side of nuclear development in 1954, when he joined the Eisenhower administration as deputy director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. A year later, he took over as head of the reactor development division, which was crucial to the birth of the civilian nuclear power industry. Davis left the Atomic Energy Commission in 1958 and joined Bechtel Corporation, San Francisco, which was picked by the government in 1959 to build the nation's first nuclear power plant. He retired from Bechtel in 1981 to become Deputy Secretary of Energy during the Reagan administration.

Ken Davis was involved in various professional organizations. In 1970, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering; he served on the NAE Council from 1972 through 1981, the last three years as vice president of the organization. He was also president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (1981), fellow and director of the American Nuclear Society, chair and president of the Atomic Industrial Forum and Atlantic Council of the United States. He then became vice chair of the World Energy Council and chair of the U.S. Committee for the World Energy Council. His many awards included the Arthur S. Flemming Award (1956); AIChE Professional Progress Award (1958), Robert E. Wilson Award (1969), and Founders Award (1983); the American Nuclear Society’s Walter H. Zinn Award (1983) and Henry DeWolf Smyth Nuclear Statesman Award (1993); the Atomic Industrial Forum Oliver Townsend Award (1981); and the Secretary of Energy’s Gold Medal (1983).

Larson Collection Interview