David Bates Douglass was born in Pompton, New Jersey, on March 21, 1790, the youngest son of Deacon Nathaniel Douglass and Sarah Bates of Newark. Raised in an iron-mining district, he developed an interest in the natural sciences and technology from very early in life, encouraged, perhaps, by his mother who provided his early education. As a teenager, Douglass developed into an avid and capable student under the tutelage of Rev. Samuel Whelpley, and was advanced enough to enter Yale as a sophomore with the class of 1813, where he hoped to prepare himself for a career in civil engineering. He soon became restless and frustrated, however, with Yale's hidebound curriculum and its limited course offerings in the natural sciences. Fortunately, the military afforded opportunities that the university did not. With the War of 1812 providing suitable training and employment for large numbers of engineers, Douglass secured a commission as second lieutenant of engineers, and reported for duty at West Point in October, 1813.
Douglass' distinguished service in the Niagara Campaign of 1814, at the Battle of Lundy's Lane, and at the siege of Fort Erie earned him a promotion to first lieutenant and a brevet captaincy in September, 1814. Douglass' personal courage while in command of an artillery battery at Fort Erie was singled out for commendation, and credited with helping to ensure victory for the American forces during the British assault in August 1814. After demobilization, the army was reluctant to lose such a promising young officer to civilian life, and as a result, on January 1, 1815, Douglass was offered the opportunity to become assistant professor of natural philosophy at the Military Academy, the only school at the time to offer formal training in engineering and therefore an outstanding opportunity for an aspiring young scientist. Throughout his career, Douglass aggressively sought out every chance to improve his professional standing, pursuing his interests both in the government service and as a private consultant, accepting seemingly any project that offered intellectual challenge, professional betterment, or financial reward. During his first few years at West Point, he organized the survey of defenses along the southern coast of New England (1815) and at the eastern end of Long Island Sound (1817), and he accompanied the commission to determine the Canadian boundary from Niagara to Detroit in 1819 as an astronomical surveyor. In December, 1815, he married Ann Eliza Ellicott (1792-1873), daughter of Andrew Ellicott, one of America's leading surveyors and long-time Professor of Mathematics at West Point.
During these years, Douglass became active in every aspect of life at the Academy, from admissions to teaching and discipline. He was an important figure in generating enthusiasm among the cadets and faculty at the Academy for the study of natural history, and at the same time, he developed an extensive correspondence with scientists around the country, with museums, other universities and private individuals, forming a broad network that facilitated the exchange of ideas and specimens. It was largely through Douglass' efforts that the natural history collections at West Point were established, and in turn, he became an important source of specimens for scientists such as Benjamin Silliman, Parker Cleaveland, and John Torrey.
Among the many projects that occupied Douglass' time at West Point, he is perhaps best remembered as an engineer assigned to the Lewis Cass Expedition of 1820, which surveyed the northwestern regions of the Michigan Territory and reported on the economic potential of its natural resources. From first hearing of the expedition, Douglass relished the thought of accompanying Cass, and when his old friend, Colonel William A. Trimble, recommended his appointment to Secretary of War Calhoun, he did not hesitate to accept. Douglass played an important role in surveying and mapping and in collecting specimens, and after his return, he assumed the major responsibility of coordinating publication of the survey's results, working with Cass and Schoolcraft to obtain official permission to make the results public. Dividing the writing chores among Torrey (botany), Daniel H. Barnes (conchology), Schoolcraft (geology and mineralogy), Cass (Native Americans), and himself (geography), Douglass successfully saw the massive task to completion. At the same time, he arranged with Silliman, editor of America's most prestigious scientific journal, the American Journal of Science, to publish a series of miscellaneous articles resulting from the expedition, including Schoolcraft's important contribution on the copper deposits of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The death of Andrew Ellicott in August, 1820, left the chair in mathematics at West Point vacant, and Douglass stepped in to fill the void. Three years later, however, he was transferred again, when a position even closer to his interests came open, the professorship of civil engineering. The move was timely. With the first fruits of success from the Erie Canal being felt by politicians and the public, engineering was beginning to garner more and more attention, and more and more money was becoming available for the development of a viable infrastructure for communications and transport. By 1823-1824, Douglass' interests in internal improvements, and in canals in particular, was sharpening. Between sessions at West Point, partly out of financial necessity, he began to take on consulting work, and in 1825, DeWitt Clinton offered him the plum job of supervising construction of the difficult western section of the Erie Canal. From this beginning, Douglass rapidly became one of the nation's leading experts in canal engineering, consulting widely on projects in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and on the project to link the Ohio River with the Potomac. He was offered a position as chief engineer for the State of Georgia and the superintendence of internal improvements in Pennsylvania, but declined both.
After years of splitting his time between military service and work on public projects, the War Department accepted Douglass' resignation from the Corps of Engineers, effective March 1, 1831, allowing Douglass to accept a position as chief engineer on the Morris & Essex Canal in New Jersey. The potential lucre of private employment had finally convinced Douglass to leave the lower pay, but greater security of military life, and he removed to Brooklyn to begin life as a civilian. Within a year, he landed an appointment as professor of natural philosophy at New York University, but relinquished the chair in 1833 when he found that his instructional duties interfered with his engineering, and instead moved into the professorship of civil engineering and architecture, with the understanding that no duties would be required except those that he chose for himself. In actuality, Douglass lectured only one year, 1836-37, devoting most of his time to designing the University's new collegiate building in Washington Square.
Douglass' participation in several high profile engineering projects during the 1830s brought him considerable public acclaim. In 1833, he surveyed the railroad route from Brooklyn to Jamaica, N.Y., capitalizing on the growing national enthusiasm for rail travel, and he solved a long-standing public health problem for the residents of New York City with his design of the Croton Aqueduct (1833-36), which supplied pure drinking water to Manhattan for many years. Perhaps his greatest fame, however, was reserved for his design of Greenwood Cemetery (1838-39) in Brooklyn, one of the most fashionable and progressive cemeteries in the nation. The Greenwood ideal of the cemetery as a place of bucolic serenity, artfully laid out to mimic a natural landscape, dominated cemetery design for the remainder of the century and had an important influence on the larger culture. Douglass remained in charge of the development of Greenwood until 1841.
Despite his professional success, Douglass' personal finances remained shaky, and after the financial panic of 1837, his luck took a turn for the worse. In 1840, he wrote that his financial affairs were "greatly deranged," and that he felt himself "labouring under accumulated embarrassments" (1840 May or June). As a result, he once again sought out the security of a position with the government, hoping for a post on the Northeastern Boundary Survey, but this time was passed over. At bidding of Charles Petit McIlvaine, Douglass accepted the presidency of Kenyon College, beginning March, 1841, and was also named professor of intellectual and moral philosophy, logic, and rhetoric. His stay there was less than successful, however, and by February, 1844, with the college failing to prosper as McIlvaine wished, Douglass was dismissed.
Returning to engineering and consulting work, Douglass laid out the Albany Rural Cemetery in 1845-46 and the Protestant cemetery in Quebec, 1848, both in the style of Greenwood. In August, 1848, he moved to Geneva College (now Hobart) to become professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, but not long after moving, he suffered a fall and paralytic stroke that left him incapacitated, and that ultimately resulted in his death on October 21, 1849. Ann Douglass survived her husband along with four sons and four daughters. Two of the sons graduated from Kenyon College in 1837 and 1838, a third from Trinity College in 1846, and the youngest, Henry (ca.1825-1892), from West Point, 1852. The first and third sons became clergymen.