David went to Magdalen College School, Oxford in 1870. In 1876 he gained a scholarship to New College, Oxford. While there he was lectured by the famous John Ruskin and William Spooner, and studied geology under Sir Joseph Prestwich. In 1878 he suffered a health breakdown and travelled to Australia to recuperate. Returning to Oxford, he concentrated on geology, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts without honours in 1880. He spent the following two years in field study of the geology of Wales. In November 1881 he read his first paper, Evidences of Glacial Action in the Neighbourhood of Cardiff before the Cardiff Naturalists' Society. In the following year he briefly studied at the Royal School of Mines, London, under Professor J.W. Judd before accepting the position of Assistant Geological Surveyor to the Government of New South Wales, Australia.
In April 1886 he began surveying the Hunter Valley coalfields and in August discovered the Greta coal seam, which yielded over £50,000,000 worth of coal up to 1949. Much of his time during the next four years was spent near Maitland where he was still tracing and mapping the coal measures and reporting to the government on other matters of commercial value. David's assistant in 1890 was William Sutherland Dun.
In 1891 David was appointed Professor of Geology at the University of Sydney, a position he held till 1924.
David was not only a good scientist but very cultured, with a sense of humour, great enthusiasm, sympathy, and courtesy, and he quickly fitted into his new position. His department was housed in a small cottage, its equipment was poor, and he had no lecturers or demonstrators; but he gradually got better facilities built and up his department. In 1892 he was president of the geological section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at the Hobart meeting, and held the same position at Brisbane in 1895.
In 1896 David went to the Pacific atoll of Funafuti as part of an expedition under Professor William Sollas of Oxford in order to take borings which it was hoped would settle the question of the formation of coral atolls. There were defects in the boring machinery and the bore penetrated only slightly more than 100 feet (approx. 31 m). In 1897 David led a second expedition (that included George Sweet as second-in-command, and Walter George Woolnough) which succeeded in reaching a depth of 557 feet (170 m) after which he had to return to Sydney. He then organized a third expedition which, under the leadership of Alfred Edmund Finckh, was successful in carrying the bore to 1114 feet (340 m). The results provided support for Charles Darwin's theory of subsidence, and the expeditions made David's name as a geologist. Cara accompanied him on the second expedition and published a well-received account called Funafuti, or Three Months on a Coral Island.
David's reputation was growing in Europe, and in 1899 he was awarded the Bigsby medal of the Geological Society of London, and in 1900 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. From 1900 to 1907 he conducted field studies of glaciation in the Kosciusko plateau and Precambrian glaciation in South Australia.
In 1904 David was elected president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science which met in Dunedin, and in 1906 he attended the International Geological Congress held in Mexico. On his way back to Australia he was able to see the Grand Canyon of Colorado and to study the effect of the San Francisco earthquake.
From 5 March to 11 March1908, David led the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the only active volcano in Antarctica. David led the summit party consisting of Mawson, Dr Alistair Mackay and himself, and there was a supporting party of three which it was afterwards decided should also attempt to reach the summit. In this they were successful in spite of a blizzard which barred their progress for a day and night. One member of the party had his feet badly frostbitten, and had to be left in camp before the final dash, but David and four others reached the summit and the whole party returned to the base.
On 5 October 1909, David led Mawson and Mackay on an attempt to reach the Magnetic South Pole, which they accomplished on 16 January 1909. Behind schedule and struggling with the severe conditions, they retraced their steps and made a lucky rendezvous with the Nimrod on 4 February 1909. Near the end of the journey David handed over leadership to Mawson on the grounds of ill health.
Shackleton's expedition returned to New Zealand on 25 March 1909. When David returned to Sydney he was presented with the Mueller medal by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at a rapturous official welcome.
At Shackleton's request David then went on a lecture tour, and earned enough money to pay the expenses of publication of the two volumes on the geology of the expedition. He also wrote his "Narrative of the Magnetic Pole Journey", which appeared in the second volume of Shackleton's Heart of the Antarctic. In 1910 the honour of Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George was conferred on him, and visiting England in connexion with the scientific results of the Antarctic expedition, Oxford University gave him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science. In 1913 he was elected for the second time president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.
David enlisted with them as a Major, at age 58, one of the oldest enlisted men on the Allied side. In February 1916 they sailed for the Western Front. When there he used his geological expertise to advise on the construction of dugouts, trenches, and tunnels, and to aid in the provision of pure drinking water from underground supplies.
Later that year the Corps was disbanded and its personnel redistributed. David became relatively independent and spent his time in geological investigations. In September 1916 he fell to the bottom of a well he was examining, breaking two ribs and rupturing his urethra. He was invalided to London but returned to the Front in November.
In January 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. and in November he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. The war having concluded, he was demobilised in 1919.
In 1921-22 David helped set up the Australian National Research Council and served as its first President. In 1924 he retired as Professor of Geology at the University of Sydney, the chair passing to his student Leo Cotton. In 1928 he discovered what he believed were Precambrian fossils, creating controversy which remained until his death.
In 1931 he published the Geological Map of the Commonwealth and the accompanying Explanatory Notes, designed to be part of his Geology of the Commonwealth of Australia. He died in 1934 without being able to complete this work and was given a state funeral.
The Edgeworth David Medal is named in his honour. It is awarded by the Royal Society of New South Wales for distinguished contributions by a young scientist under the age of thirty-five for work done mainly in Australia or its territories. The mineral davidite is named after him, as is the Edgeworth David Building at the University of Sydney and Edgeworth David Avenue in Hornsby, New South Wales where he spent his later years. He has been depicted on two Australian postage stamps.