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In 1930, William Morris Davis published “Origin of Limestone Caverns” in the GSA Bulletin, initiating an episode of mistaken interpretation and resistance to field evidence almost unique in American geology. Davis proposed a two-cycle, deep-circulation theory of cave genesis by phreatic solution. J Harlan Bretz made heroic efforts to defend the theory, but geologic facts show it to be mostly wrong.

Davis ignored European literature, particularly the work of Alfred Grand and Jovan Cvijić whose empirical studies demonstrate that many caves are formed by solutional and mechanical action near and above the water table. Davis was misled by his lack of geochemistry and by fanciful maps of Mammoth Cave that show a labyrinth rather than the actual modified dendritic pattern of passages.

Among others, Claude A. Malott and James H. Gardner presented theories that displaced Davis' phreatic theory. In particular, Allyn C. Swinnerton developed a theory of temperate zone cave formation by flow along a seasonally fluctuating water table that is best supported by geologic evidence today. Recent work by Franz-Dieter Miotke, Arthur N. Palmer, and others relates episodes of cave formation to Pleistocene glacial periods.

Geochemical work initiated by Clifford A. Kaye and others caused a revolution in cave studies, and these data integrated with geologic, geomorphic, and hydrologic details by Derek C. Ford, Ralph O. Ewers, and others have led to sophisticated models of cave origin adaptable to all situations.

Some caves are formed by deep phreatic solution, although Carol A. Hill argues that in Carlsbad Caverns the active agent was sulfuric, not carbonic acid. Davis' prestige was so great, however, that his incorrect hypothetical model was an obstacle to the understanding of cave origin, and remains so today because of its continued uncritical incorporation in some elementary texts.

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