Joseph Cole Davis, 72, a member of the national steering committee of the Gray Panthers who was active in tenants rights groups in Washington, died Saturday at a hospital in Frederick, Md., after a heart attack. He lived in Washington.

Mr. Davis was an engineer and physicist by profession. He worked for the National Bureau of Standards from 1944, when he moved here, until he retired in 1972. In the 1970s, he wrote a column on home heating and air conditioning for The Washington Star and The Washington Post.

He was born in Colorado Springs, Colo. After graduating from Kenyon College, he taught physics in New York state high schools and at Syracuse University.

After he retired from the government, Mr. Davis was active in the tenants rights movement and the push for rent control legislation in Washington. He was a founder of the Citywide Housing Coalition and the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing. He also headed the Gray Panthers' National Housing Task Force. In 1978, he received a commendation from former Mayor Walter E. Washington for his work with the Gray Panthers.

He was a member of the American Society for Heating and Refrigeration Engineers and a consultant for the National Academy of Sciences.

Survivors include his wife, Marcelline B. of Washington; a son, James J. of Denver, and two grandchildren.