Archives of two giants of economics donated to UChicago Library

Papers of George Stigler, Harry G. Johnson to deepen understanding of field-defining research

The University of Chicago has a long history of field-defining scholarship in economics. Thirty scholars affiliated with the University have won Nobel Prizes for their groundbreaking research in economics—ranging from the study of society to the intersection of law and economics.

Recent gifts to the University of Chicago Library, including the papers of Nobel laureate George Stigler, PhD’38, and international trade expert Harry G. Johnson, will expand scholars’ understanding of the legacy of the Chicago school of economics and the ways in which UChicago scholars shape the field on a global scale.

With these new gifts, the UChicago Library is now home to collections of more than 30 economists and 21 Nobel laureates, including seven Nobel Prize-winning economists: Gary Becker, Ronald Coase, Robert Fogel, Milton Friedman, Merton Miller, Theodore Schultz and George Stigler.  

“These generous new gifts will enable scholars to explore the history of economics in new ways,” said Brenda Johnson, Library Director and University Librarian. “They strengthen our University Archives and demonstrate the Library’s ongoing commitment to being a vital center of University of Chicago history and the home of Nobel Prize winners’ research.” 

Towering figure in law and economics

Frequently thought of as one of the leaders of the Chicago school of economics, Stigler, PhD’38, came to UChicago as a graduate student in 1933, and returned to Chicago as a professor from 1958 until his death in 1991. He was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize “for his seminal studies of industrial structures, functioning of markets and causes and effects of public regulation” and was hailed by the Journal of Law and Economics as “a towering figure in the history of law and economics.”

Stigler is widely known for developing the “Economic Theory of Regulation,” which argues that political and economic interest groups use the coercive and regulatory powers of government to shape laws and regulations that benefit them. He also shaped the education of a generation of undergraduates as the author of The Theory of Price, a textbook on free market economics that places its subject in historical context. 

He initiated the study of the economics of information as a field, arguing that knowledge is costly to acquire and that consumers and businesses therefore must make decisions about how much information to acquire, as they do with goods and services.

Stigler’s son Stephen M. Stigler, the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Statistics and the College, donated his father’s papers to the University of Chicago Library, where they are available for research in the Special Collections Research Center. 

A longtime supporter of the Library, Stephen said the papers clearly belonged here: “I never had a thought that they’d go anywhere else because the University of Chicago was such an important part of my father’s life.”

The papers include 70 linear feet of research and teaching materials, correspondence with economists such as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, photographs and ephemera. Stephen Stigler anticipates that scholars may be particularly interested in some of the short, unpublished pieces that explore economic issues and, in some cases, politics.

“He was very interested in politics—not politics as something to push forward, but he thought when people voted a certain way or acted a certain way politically, they were furthering their own interests, and that’s not always obvious from what they did,” Stephen Stigler explained. 

“People sometimes do what could at first glance look foolish, and you wonder why they did it, but if you study it enough, you can find that there is a rational story you can tell to explain what they’re doing. You learn a lot about human behavior in the process.”

Discovering ‘the age of Johnson’

A contemporary of Stigler, Johnson came to the University of Chicago in 1959, holding the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professorship in the Department of Economics from 1969 until his death in 1977. He was extraordinarily prolific, writing 19 books and 500 scholarly papers and editing 24 volumes before he died of a stroke at age 53. 

Focusing primarily on international economics and economic theory, he played a leading role in the development of the Heckscher-Ohlin model of international trade. He was known for articulating the connections between the ideas of major postwar economic innovators and, according to biographer D. E. Moggridge, defined the vital issues that “set the profession’s agenda for a generation.”

An influential editor of the Review of Economic Studies, the Journal of Political Economy, the Manchester School and Economica, Johnson was considered so important to the field that Nobel laureate James Tobin called the third quarter of the 20th century “the age of Johnson.” 

Johnson’s papers were donated to the University of Chicago Library by his children, Karen Johnson and Ragnar Johnson. The 100 linear feet of materials include research and teaching papers, correspondence and photographs.

An additional gift from David Levy, AM’70, PhD’79, will support the in-depth work of organizing the papers into an archival collection that will be ready for research. Additionally, an online finding aid to the papers will provide a clear understanding of the collection.

David Levy, a professor at George Mason University specializing in economics and the history of economic thought, expects his gift will help future scholars better understand Johnson and his impact. 

“Harry is one of the most important teachers at Chicago, but he’s not considered ‘Chicago School,’ which is actually sort of a problem for the history of ideas. He’s not noted for free-market advocacy,” Levy said. “Harry helped make the distinction between Keynes and Keynesians. He would combat myths wherever he saw them. From my point of view, that’s his greatest contribution.”