Robert W. Fogel, U. of C. professor and Nobel winner, dies at 86
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL modonnell@suntimesobits/Twitter @suntimesobits June 12, 2013 2:02PM
This April 4, 2013 photo provided by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business shows Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist Robert Fogel at his home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Fogel, whose work on the economics of slavery triggered a furious national debate, died Tuesday, June 11, 2013, after a brief illness. He was 86. Fogel wrote 22 books, the last one published in April. He first came to prominence in academic circles in the 1960s when he concluded that railroads weren't as important to the nation's economy as was widely believed. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Dustin Whitehead)
Updated: July 15, 2013 7:05PM
Robert W. Fogel braided together economics, statistics and history to produce studies that won him the Nobel prize in 1993.
The University of Chicago professor died Tuesday at ManorCare Health Services in Oak Lawn at 86.
Though he wrote 22 books and studied many topics, his research on slavery generated the most uproar.
In fact, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he was still addressing the controversy triggered by a book he co-authored nearly 20 years earlier.
That work, “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” was billed as a “record of black achievement under adversity.” But some labeled it “cold-blooded” for its assessment of slavery as an economically efficient enterprise.
The book concluded that slaves’ living standards were about equal to those of free factory and farm workers; that many slaves received the bulk of the income they produced, and that it was in the interest of plantation owners to keep slave families intact — rather than break up families at auctions.
“If you want me to say [slavery] was unprofitable and inefficient, I won’t,” Mr. Fogel said in 1993, “but I don’t think anyone would say it was moral.”
Mr. Fogel’s award was the fourth consecutive Nobel Prize for the University of Chicago — a “four-peat” that was a first in higher education. He was recognized for the research on slavery, as well as studies on the impact of America’s 19th century railroads on economic growth.
He was a “myth buster,” according to Sam Peltzman, a University of Chicago professor emeritus of economics. For example, Mr. Fogel’s research on the railroads showed the nation’s economy and westward expansion “would have grown at the same rate, even if railroads didn’t exist,” according to the university.
Still, even a Nobel winner can’t forecast everything. Back in 2000, before the current economic downtown, author George Will noted that Mr. Fogel believed that society was moving toward a 28-hour workweek and retirement at 55 in his book, “The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism.”
At the time of his death, he was still teaching.
“He was making trips to China as late as last year,” Peltzman said. “He got very interested in China’s growth.”
He was born in New York City to parents from Odessa, Ukraine. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University; a master’s in economics from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He received nine honorary degrees, including from Harvard and Cambridge universities.
He taught at Johns Hopkins and the University of Rochester before joining the University of Chicago in 1964, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After a 1975-1981 stint at Harvard, he returned to the University of Chicago.
Mr. Fogel enjoyed visiting the Seminary Co-Operative Bookstore at 5751 S. Woodlawn and brunches at the Ritz-Carlton.
He was a “New York boy” with a quick sense of humor, Peltzman said. After winning the Nobel, he told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I bought a print as a souvenir from the gift store at the Louvre in Paris. When I got back, I discovered the work [Chagall’s “The Praying Jew”] was part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute. I could have stayed home.”
He credited his wife, Enid, for improving his lectures and books. “No individual has done more to help me pursue a career in science,” he said. She died in 2007, after 59 years of marriage. Mr. Fogel is survived by his sons, Michael and Steven; five grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
A memorial is being planned this summer at the university.