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June 12

Colleague remembers Robert Fogel

 
Nobel laureate leaves legacy of scholarly inquiry

Robert W. Fogel, Nobel-winning economist, author, and Chicago Booth professor, died Tuesday. He was 86. Fogel, who was also director of the Center for Population Economics and a member of the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, was memorialized by national news organizations including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Washington Post. When the news broke on campus, Joseph Burton, executive director of the Coase-Sandor Institute for Law and Economics and former research director at the CPE, shared his recollections of the beloved professor:
As I reflect on my observations about Professor Fogel over the nearly 10 years I worked for him, three things stand out. First, he gave his students, staff, and collaborators an incredible amount of freedom. I was always struck by how supportive he was of original thinking, and by how much freedom we had to carry out his research agenda, as well as to build our own projects and interests.

He never demanded any of the credit, either. Once when we found a particularly shocking decline in the historical infant mortality data that turned out to be completely absent from the literature, he added the results to a speech he was giving the next day at the RAND Corp. In the speech, he repeatedly referred to the results as “Ethan’s graph,” after the undergraduate who had discovered the effect.

Another observation was his importance as a mentor for some of the great economists and economic historians of our day, including Claudia Goldin, Ken Sokoloff, Dora Costa, and Bob Margo. And he talked about them like they were his own children. He remembered the first time Clayne Pope spoke in class, the first comment Claudia Goldin gave in a workshop—he always said he learned more from his students than they learned from him.

Professor Fogel has a very unique network of former undergraduates and graduate students. Not only does it include prominent economists, it includes hundreds of Brigham Young University students who worked for him for 20 years at the National Archives digitizing Union Army pensions, and who often, as it turns out, met and fell in love as a result of their jobs there.  Everywhere we went, we’d meet professionals and scholars in archives and libraries and universities who got their start on one of Professor Fogel’s projects. One research director told him that he and his wife had spent their honeymoon working for Professor Fogel in the National Archives. Professor Fogel just beamed, and asked, “How many children do you have?” Professor Fogel took a demographer’s interest in how many people had been born as a result of his project, and though there is no official count, it must be in the hundreds.

Finally, it seems odd to say it, but Professor Fogel loved this country. Many people think of intellectuals as being above such things as pride in one’s country and patriotism. He loved politics—he had begun as a communist and ended up a free marketeer. Not withstanding the obvious delight he took in disabusing graduate students of their notions that the most morally acceptable economies were inevitably the most productive, he had a deep appreciation for this country and its institutions, and often acknowledged the ways his career had been made possible because his parents migrated to the U.S. before he was born.

Professor Fogel was very kind to me—he never treated me as an equal, because that would have been absurd. But he treated me as a friend. And I will always be grateful for his support at a crucial time in my career.
Fogel, a prolific writer, most recently published Political Arithmetic: Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics. Read an excerpt in the Summer 2013 issue of Capital Ideas.

—Chelsea Vail