William O. Douglas Chronology

1898 William Orville Douglas is born to the Reverend William and Julia Douglas in Maine, Minnesota.

1901 Three year old “Orville” is gravely ill. Infantile paralysis, possibly polio. The Douglas family moves to Estrella, California.

1903 Family moves to Cleveland, Washington.

1904 Reverend Douglas, an itinerant minister described as a rigid Presbyterian dies in a Portland, Oregon hospital. The widow Douglas moves her family to Yakima. William begins hiking to help him recover from a lingering weakness caused by a childhood illness.  To compensate for his physical shortcomings, Douglas pushes himself to achieve academic excellence.

1906-1915 The Douglas household is a spartan one. All three children work year-round to help support the family. Young Orville, as he was known, delivers newspapers, sets pins in a bowling alley and works in an ice cream plant. None of these jobs has a more profound impact on him than working in the fields and orchards of Eastern Washington. As a result, he grows to know and respect the many different migrant groups and develops a profound compassion for society’s underprivileged.

1916 Graduates from Yakima High School as class valedictorian and is awarded a tuition scholarship by Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

1920 Graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Whitman. Begins teaching English and Latin at Yakima High School.

1922 Enters Columbia Law School in New York City. After one year, he makes the staff of the prestigious Columbia Law Review. Among his classmates at Columbia are Thomas E. Dewey and Paul Robeson.

1923 Marries Mildred Riddle, a co-worker at Yakima High School and a native of La Grande, Oregon.

1925 Graduates second in his class from Columbia. Begins professional career at Wall Street law firm of Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine, and Wood. Teaches at Columbia on the side.

1926 Briefly returns to Yakima to practice law, then accepts a position teaching full-time at Columbia Law School.

1928 Accepts a teaching position at Yale University.

1929 With the onset of the Great Depression Douglas becomes especially interested in the bankruptcy phenomenon in the United States and is soon recognized as a leading authority on the causes of bankruptcy.

1934 Accepts a position with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

1936 Is appointed commissioner of the SEC.

1937 Is appointed chairman of the SEC, replacing James Landis. Calling himself the “investors’ advocate” with an uncompromising attitude, “He took on the Holy of the Wall Street Holies, The New York Stock Exchange, and forced it to transform itself…” wrote Fred Rodell for American Mercury. His success in regulating the stock market did not make friends among the wealthy businessmen who had been used to having their own way on the Street. “…Douglas found the New York Stock Exchange a private club and he left it a public institution” Robert Kenny, California Attorney General 1944

1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints Douglas to United States Supreme Court to fill the position vacated by Justice Louis D. Brandeis. At 40 years of age he becomes one of the youngest men ever appointed to the Supreme Court.

1940 F.D.R. considers him as vice-presidential nominee.

1944 F.D.R. again considers Douglas for vice-presidential nomination. Purportedly, FDR’s first choice.

1948 Declines invitation of President Harry S. Truman to run for vice-president.

1949 Horseback-riding accident results in twenty-three broken ribs and nearly ends Douglas’ life. Writes memoir Of Men & Mountains during his recovery, his most critically acclaimed book . He will write over 40 books in his lifetime.

1951 Dennis v. United States.   Douglas establishes a reputation as an outspoken advocate of individual rights. His voting record in support of constitutionally guaranteed rights to personal freedom, privacy and equal treatment before the law is unprecedented. “He stood for the individual as no other justice ever has.” Lucas Powe, Jr., former law clerk to William O. Douglas.

1953 Divorces Mildred.

1954 Marries Mercedes Hester Davidson. Challenges Washington Post Editorial board to hike the C & O Canal route to save it from proposed highway project.

1955 Tours Russia. At the behest of family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy is accompanied by Robert F. Kennedy to internationalize the younger Kennedy’s personal experience.

1956 Douglas and his wife Mercedes Davidson accompanied acclaimed biologists Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy to Alaska on the Sheenjek River Expedition.

1958 Leads a hike along a secluded and pristine section of beach in Olympic National Park to protest a future roadway into the area; the hike is successful and plans are abandoned. As a staunch protector of the natural environment he helps define environmental activism in the United States and the International community before the term “environmentalism” appears in mainstream culture.

1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published.  Douglas writes the liner notes for the Book of of the Month edition.

1963 Divorces Mercedes. Marries Joan Martin.

1964 In July Ladies Home Journal publishes the article “Our Vanishing Wilderness”

1965 Griswold v Connecticut. The Supreme Court held that the statute was unconstitutional because it was a violation of a person’s right to privacy. In his opinion, Douglas stated that the specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights have penumbras “formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and sub-stance,” and that the right to privacy exists within this area. Douglas at the urging of Justice William Brennan wrote the courts majority opinion.

1966 Divorces Joan. Marries Cathleen Heffernan. Douglas maintains his connection to the Pacific Northwest throughout his years in the nation’s capital. His first and fourth wives, Mildred Riddle and Cathleen Heffernan, hail from Oregon, and for many years he enjoys summers in and around a cabin in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, and later at his Goose Prairie residence in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

1967 For the first time in Supreme Court history Douglas uses the word “ecology” to argue that no dam should be built on the Snake River in Udall v. Federal Power Commission showing that scientific perspectives ought to be considered, thus elevating this to the paramount question.

1970 The fourth attempt to impeach Justice William O. Douglas is organized by Representative Gerald Ford. Often a focal point of controversy, Justice Douglas openly criticizes American domestic and foreign policy throughout his tenure on the court.

1972 Sierra Club v. Morton. WOD writes his iconic dissenting opinion defining why wild things deserve standing in the eyes of the law.

1974 Suffers a stroke on December 31.

1975 Retires from the Supreme Court on November 12 and is succeeded by John Paul Stevens.* Douglas served on the Supreme Court for thirty-six years – longer than any other justice in American history.

1980 Dies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 19.


*Justice Stephens retired in 2010. This seat on the bench was occupied by Justices Brandeis from 1916 through 1939, then Douglas from 1939 until 1975 and Stevens until 2010. Three individuals for a total of 94 years.