Robert Fogel, won Nobel Prize in Economics, 1926-2013

Update: A celebration of the life and work of Prof. Robert Fogel will be held Oct. 4 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. A reception will follow at the Charles M. Harper Center.

Robert W. Fogel, an economic historian at the University of Chicago who won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his studies of slavery in the United States and the role railroads played in the development of the economy, died Tuesday, June 11. His death at age 86 followed a brief illness, according to his family.

Fogel used quantitative methods to explain economic and institutional change. His work often challenged conventional wisdom and was, at the time, controversial. His research showed that the economic impact of railroads in the 19th century was far less than generally assumed.

“Professor Fogel has changed the way that people think about several really important topics through his work. When you find such a new way of thinking about things, that’s going to discomfort some people,” said Hoyt Bleakley, associate professor of economics at Chicago Booth, who taught a course with Fogel this year.

Fogel was an active faculty member in Economics and the Booth School of Business, where he continued to do research and taught three courses covering the economics and demographics of marketing, population and the economy, and business ethics. Fogel was the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions, director of the University of Chicago Center for Population Economics and a faculty member of the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought.

“He gave his students, staff and collaborators an incredible amount of freedom,” said Joseph Burton, executive director of the Coase-Sandor Institute for Law and Economics at the University of Chicago. “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 build our own projects and interests.”

Burton, who is a former research director at the Center for Population Economics, said Fogel always made sure to credit others for their work, and was a mentor to many economists and economic historians.

“It’s been a real pleasure to be in the classroom with him because he had such a unique perspective that was informed in part by his lifetime of work as well as by his personal experiences,” Bleakley said. “He was always thinking about the world from the perspective of an economist and from the perspective of a data cruncher. He was very interested in how the world works and in how our lives have changed and will continue to change.”

Nathaniel Grotte, associate director of the Center for Population Economics, said, “What will really stick with me is his incredible generosity with his time and expertise, and how unfailingly kind he always was to everyone. He thrived on discussion and debate, and nothing made him happier than being challenged.”

Fogel first attracted attention as a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins University in 1962 with his statistical analysis of the impact of railroads on 19th-century American economic development. In his book Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History, he showed that the U.S. economy in the 1800s would have grown at the same rate, even if railroads didn’t exist.

His book, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, written with Stanley Engerman, sparked debate from the moment it was published in 1974. In it, Fogel and Engerman challenged the long-held assumption, by then taken as fact, that slavery was unprofitable, inefficient and in decline in the years leading up to the Civil War. Their research found that slave farms were as productive as free farms and that the viability of slavery — as well as the economy of the antebellum South — was increasing. His four-volume Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery continued to generate controversy.

Fogel and Engerman met when both were at Johns Hopkins. “We shared an office in the attic with about four other people,” Engerman said, adding that while in school the pair already had started thinking about the research that would become Time on the Cross, but they had to wait until Fogel had finished Railroads and American Economic Growth.

“He was quite willing to approach problems in a way that other people didn’t,” Engerman said. “He looked at them in a different way than most other people did. By asking slightly different questions he was able to learn quite a lot and teach people a lot. He also was probably as hard a working person as anyone would meet.”

In the 1980s, Fogel began to focus on what he called “the problem of creating and studying larger life-cycle and intergenerational data sets.” This research led him to write many research papers and several books on the economics of aging, including The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, and The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World since 1700. The Changing Body was written with Roderick Floud, Bernard Harris and Sok Chul Hong.

During his career, Fogel wrote 22 books—the most recent, released in April, Political Arithmetic: Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics. He also was working on three others at the time of his death. Fogel also published 90 papers in academic journals. Much of his research since 1991 was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and its National Institute on Aging Program. The National Science Foundation also funded his research.

Among Fogel’s recent projects was an examination of veterans of the Union Army, Bleakley said, “which again has been a long, hard slog through data with the intent of seeing how human health and potential have changed dramatically over time, and of understanding trends and reasons for those trends.”

“I had the privilege of teaching with Bob Fogel this past year, and I saw some of that approach in the class we taught. He would take something that the students and I had a much shorter-term perspective on, and he would just stretch that way out and say, ‘Look, this phenomenon that you may think of here, it also appeared 50 years ago, 100 years ago with this twist.’”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Fogel the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change,” according to the Nobel citation. The Academy called his study of railroads and American economic growth a “scientific breakthrough.” Fogel shared the Nobel Prize with Douglass North, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Alliance for Aging Research recognized Fogel as the “Indispensable Person in Health Research” for 2006, for his work on the economics of health and health care.

Fogel was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was chosen as one of the “1,000 Makers of the 20th Century” by the London Times.

Fogel was president of the American Economic Association in 1998.

During his academic career, he spoke at more than 230 faculty seminars and workshops at colleges and universities around the world.

Fogel was born in New York City on July 1, 1926 — four years after his parents emigrated from Odessa, Russia. “Although they arrived in New York penniless, my parents scraped together enough savings to establish the first of several small businesses just after I was born,” he wrote in an autobiography posted on the Nobel Prize website.

“My education in the public schools of New York City between 1932 and 1944 was an excellent preparation for a life in science,” he wrote. “Because of the Depression, these schools were able to attract a remarkably talented and dedicated collection of teachers who encouraged their students to strive for the highest levels of accomplishment. That environment led me to aspire to a career in science, and also kindled my love for literature and history.”

“Many people think of intellectuals as being above such things as pride in one’s country and patriotism,” Burton said. “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 had immigrated to the U.S. before he was born.”

Fogel was married to his wife, Enid, for 59 years until her death in 2007. “No individual has done more to help me pursue a career in science” than his wife, he wrote in his autobiography. “Over the years, Enid has been both my most confident supporter and keenest critic. She helped boost my self-confidence when my unorthodox findings provoked controversy and criticism, and she often provided insightful suggestions for the improvement of my lectures, papers, books, letters and research proposals.

“Throughout the years she has been the overseer of my social conscience, pulling me back to reality when she saw that my preoccupation with the abstract aspects of scientific issues had led me to extenuate their deeply human aspects.”

Fogel joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1964, moved to Harvard in 1975, and returned in 1981 to the Chicago faculty, where he stayed for the rest of his career. He taught at the University of Rochester from 1960 to 1964.

Fogel received a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University, a master’s degree from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University. He received nine honorary degrees, including those from Cambridge, Harvard, the University of Rochester, the University of Palermo in Italy and the University of London.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree at Cornell, Fogel sought out professors with varied areas of expertise, a move that broadened his perspectives during his five decades of academic research.

Sons Michael and Steven, who both live in Chicago, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, survive Fogel.

Fogel’s burial will be private. A memorial service for the University community will be planned on campus over the summer. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations to Equip for Equality, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of the disabled. Letters of condolence may be sent care of: Center for Population Economics, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, 5807 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.