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Rotary History

James Davidson: ‘The Marco Polo of Rotary’

Experienced adventurer James Wheeler Davidson was instrumental in expanding Rotary to other countries in the early years, embarking on journeys to distant lands that resulted in the chartering of 23 clubs in 12 countries from Greece to Thailand.

James and Lillian Davidson in Greece.

Davidson’s proposed itinerary, left, submitted with a map illustrating the route. 1928. At right, Davidson letter to Rotary secretary Chesley Perry, 22 October 1929. It begins: “Well at last we are in Singapore in a comfortable large bedroom and sitting room. Mrs. D is hard at work as usual typing and I have been at work since early morning getting my first F.M.S. (Federated Malay States) report off to you.”

Davidson, who as a young man joined Arctic explorer Robert Peary’s second expedition to Greenland, traveled to Australia and New Zealand on his first trip for Rotary in 1921. A second and much longer journey took him through Asia and the Far East from 1928 to 1931. As a result, Rotary founder Paul Harris dubbed him “the Marco Polo of Rotary.”

Davidson was born in Austin, Minnesota, USA, in June 1872 and was educated at the Northwestern Military Academy. After the Peary expedition, he served as a correspondent covering the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. He stayed in Formosa (now Taiwan) to work for the U.S. foreign service for several years before being transferred to Manchuria, then to Shanghai. 

During his return trip to the United States in 1905, Davidson met Lillian Dow, and within a year they married and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The couple moved to Calgary, Alberta, a year later, where Davidson joined Rotary in 1914.

Before his trip to Asia, Rotary appointed Davidson honorary general commissioner and tasked him with introducing Rotary in various countries and facilitating the organization of new clubs. In March 1928, Davidson submitted his plans along with an illustration of a proposed itinerary plotted on a world map. He originally planned to depart from Calgary and travel west to Japan. 

Instead, in late August, he set sail from Montreal and headed for Asia by way of Europe, accompanied by his wife, Lillian, and teenage daughter, Marjory, on what turned into a trip of two-and-a-half years. On 12 March 1931, Davidson and his family set sail from Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan, and their adventure finally concluded when they arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on the 21st. 

In Burma (now Myanmar), Davidson found some clubs already established, including one in Thayetmyo. He is shown here with members of the club, which he formally reorganized on 3 September 1929. On 30 September, it became the first club chartered in Burma. By the end of the 1970s, all Rotary clubs in the country had closed. Rotary was reintroduced when the present-day club in Yangon was chartered in May 2014. 

Throughout the trip, Davidson wrote extensive reports and sent them back to Rotary headquarters in Chicago. In one report, written en route to Burma (now Myanmar), Davidson reflected, “Last night, I made out another itinerary which is the most humorous thing I do. Those of the past have meant nothing except to show that I was moving in a certain direction. ... It makes me laugh to think that when I first considered making this trip that I had six months in mind.”

Lillian Davidson delighted attendees at the 1932 Rotary International Convention with an account of the trip, as her husband was ill at the time. She was well prepared for the task, having written her own travel accounts during the trip for a series of articles published in The Rotarian and, in 1934, as a book, “Making New Friends for Rotary: From Near to Far East.” 

“Now, the lesson in all this mingling with Turks, Egyptians, Arabs, Persians, Indian Moslems, Hindus, Burmese, Javanese, Malays, Siamese, Chinese, and Japanese, and Europeans resident in the East — my husband has made some 2200 (sic) calls on them in all — is that, with each nationality, one finds some virtues that we and the others lack. No nation and no race has a monopoly on all that is good and desirable.” 

At the 1934 Rotary International Convention, Allen D. Albert, 1915-16 Rotary president, paid tribute to Davidson, who had died the previous year: “We turn our thought today to one of whom it is warrantable to say that he spent his richest years in giving unto Rotary and through Rotary in giving unto mankind. He would be uncomfortable to hear himself spoken of as more than one in a fellowship of those who gave what they could.”