Fast facts on the personal life of William O. Douglas

  • Born October 16, 1898 in Maine Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota
  • Mother, Julia Bickford, born 1872 in Maine Township, Minnesota, died 1941 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Father, William Douglas, born 1856 in Canada, died 1904 in Portland, Oregon
  • Married Mildred Riddle in 1923, divorced 1953
  • Married Mercedes Hester Davidson in 1954, divorced 1966
  • Married Joan Martin in 1963, divorced 1966
  • Married Cathleen Heffernan in 1966 (married until death of William O. Douglas)
  • Died January 19, 1980 at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland
  • Interred in Section 5 of Arlington National Cemetery


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

1901 Three-year-old “Orville” is gravely ill from 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.

Young William O. Douglas standing next to a tree in 1914.
Young William O. Douglas in the woods. 1914

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.

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.

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 accompany 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.

Justice Douglas dipping his toes in the water during the Olympic Beach hike in Washington state. 1958

1963 Divorces Mercedes. Marries Joan Martin.

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.

1974 Suffers a stroke on December 31.

1975 Retires from the Supreme Court on November 12 and is succeeded by John Paul Stevens. 

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

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1939. Black and white.
Douglas in 1939