David Franklin Houston, college president and secretary of agriculture to President Woodrow Wilson, son of William Henry and Cornelia Anne (Stevens) Houston, was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on February 17, 1866. In 1872 the family moved to Darlington, South Carolina, where the father made a scanty living by farming and dealing in horses and mules. The frugal family, it is said, considered themselves fortunate if they had white bread on the table once a week. The parents managed to pay a tuition of forty-five dollars a session so that young Frank could attend St. John's Academy in Darlington, where he studied Latin, Greek, and mathematics "as far as plane geometry." His studies were interrupted in 1883, when to support himself he taught in a country school. He returned to St. John's, clerked part-time in a drugstore, and for a brief time planned to be a doctor. In 1885, with $180 in his pocket, he entered South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina). He graduated with honors in 1887, fourth in his class.
After staying on at the college for a year as tutor, Houston accepted the superintendency of the Spartanburg, South Carolina, public schools, planning eventually to study law. In the fall of 1891 he entered Harvard, where the offer of a fellowship in political science caused him to change his plans once again. In 1892 he received the master's degree. He planned to complete work for a doctorate but in 1894 accepted a position as adjunct professor in the newly organized department of political science at the University of Texas. His book A Critical Study of Nullification in South Carolina, published in 1896, established his reputation as a scholar. In 1899 Houston, at age thirty-three, became dean of the faculty. The next year President McKinley appointed him to the Board of Visitors of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Houston's success in teaching and administration led to his appointment as president of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University) in 1902. During his three years there he raised standards for both faculty and students, improved the library and physical plant, and established a textile engineering department. In the opinion of James Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, Texas A&M was "more nearly fulfilling its mission than any other similar institution in the United States." In 1905 Houston returned to the University of Texas as president. Once again he proved himself an excellent administrator. He raised the entrance requirements for both freshmen and students in the schools of law and medicine. Under his administration a Ph.D. program for the graduate school was approved by the board of regents, and a new law building was completed. The financial panic of 1907 forced him to lay aside plans for a new power plant and a new library. In 1908, on the strong recommendation of Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, Houston was selected as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.
In 1913 Woodrow Wilson, after conferring with Edward M. House, picked Houston as secretary of agriculture. An unusual amount of agricultural legislation was passed during the seven years Houston held the office: the Smith-Lever Act (agricultural extension), the Farm Loan Act, the Warehouse Act (storage of nonperishable crops), and the Federal Aid Road Act, which for the first time established effective cooperation between the states and the federal government in the building of national highways. These progressive measures were enacted more as compromises than as efforts on Houston's part. He opposed direct federal aid to distressed groups. His mark is more clearly seen in the strict federal standards imposed on all grants to states. He was important for enlarging and reorganizing the administrative function of the Department of Agriculture toward broader social and economic issues. He established a new Cooperative Extension Service, an Office of Information, and an Office of Markets. During the last year of Wilson's presidency, Houston served as secretary of the treasury. He described his cabinet experience in his memoirs, Eight Years With Wilson's Cabinet, a two-volume work published in 1926. The memoirs contain a ninety-nine-page section titled "An Estimate of Woodrow Wilson," in which Houston vigorously refuted criticism of the president and his policies.
After leaving government service Houston began a successful business career that culminated in his election in June 1930 as president of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, a position he held for ten years. He was also a director of several corporations, including the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Guaranty Trust Company, and the United States Steel Corporation. He served as overseer of Harvard University and as a member of the board of trustees of Columbia University.
During his first year as a young teacher at the University of Texas, Houston met Helen Beall, whom he married at the First Presbyterian Church in Austin on December 11, 1895. They had five children. Mrs. Houston died in January 1940. On September 2 of the same year Houston died of a heart attack at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. After an Episcopal funeral service, a private burial service was held for him at Memorial Cemetery, Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.