Born in Wisconsin in 1884, Stevens earned a B.A. (1906) and an M.A. (1910) from Lawrence University. He taught briefly at Northwestern University before moving on to earn an M.A. from Harvard University in 1912 and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago in 1914.
Following the completion of his doctorate, Stevens remained at the University of Chicago, rising through the ranks of the English department to become a full professor in 1925. He was also active in University administration, holding positions as Dean of the College of Arts, Literature and Science from 1920 to 1922 and Associate Dean of Faculties in 1929. His academic career was briefly interrupted in 1918 when he served in the Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army during World War I.
In 1930 Stevens left the University of Chicago to join the GEB as vice president, a post he held until 1938. He helped to expand the work of the GEB into the northern states during the Great Depression. In 1932 Stevens took on perhaps his most important position when he was named Director of the Humanities Division of the RF. As the first full-time director, Stevens had a huge impact in shaping the direction of the humanities program of the RF. His seventeen-year tenure saw the foundation undertaking new initiatives in the fields of drama, radio, film, linguistics, literature and history. Stevens and his associate, John Marshall, moved the RF away from its funding of classical studies and archaeology, refocusing the Foundation’s efforts on creative fields and international cultural exchanges.
Following his retirement in 1949, Stevens returned to scholarly pursuits as a research associate at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Stevens died in California in 1980 at the age of 95. His passion for the humanities was evident through a life’s work that helped to shape the field and the broader cultural life of the United States.
David H. Stevens recounted his career in Robert E. Gard’s A Time of Humanities; An Oral History: Recollections of David H. Stevens as Director in The Division of the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, 1930-50. The papers of David H. Stevens can be found at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) and the University of Chicago Library. His officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the RAC's online collections.