Douglass North Biography


Birthday: November 5, 1920 (Scorpio)

Born In: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Douglass North was an American economist who won a share of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Best known for his work in economic history, he was of the belief that the way markets function in a country is linked to the strength or weakness of the nation’s institutions. While economists before him had studied the role of institutions in developing the economy of a country, North introduced a rigorous analysis to the study of institutional dynamics. In recognition of his contributions to economics, he along with Ronald Coase is considered a co-founder of the New Institutional Economics school of thought. Born in Cambridge, he spent his early years living at different places due to the nature of his father’s job. Even though neither of his parents was highly educated, he credited his mother’s natural intelligence and curiosity as influential factors in developing his own intellect. He went to the University of California from where he graduated with average grades. Strongly opposed to the World War II, he became a navigator in the Merchant Marine as he did not want to kill anyone. It was during his military career that he developed a deep interest in economics and eventually returned to UC Berkeley to pursue a PhD in economics.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Douglass C. North, Douglass Cecil North

Died At Age: 95

Born Country: United States

Economists American Men

Died on: November 23, 2015

place of death: Benzonia, Michigan, United States

U.S. State: Massachusetts

More Facts

awards: Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities
US & Canada

Childhood & Early Life
Douglass North was born on November 5, 1920, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S. to Henry North and Edith Saitta as the youngest of their three children. He had one brother and one sister. His father was a high school dropout who worked in the insurance sector, eventually becoming head of MedLife on the West Coast. His mother too was not much educated but her intellectual curiosity helped the young boy in developing his own intellect.
After receiving his primary education from private schools, he completed high school from the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. During his teenage he was deeply interested in photography and even won prizes in an international competition for college and high school students.
He then enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. There he became a convinced Marxist and vehemently opposed the World War II. He was an average student although he had a triple major in political science, philosophy, and economics.
He planned to go to law school but the World War II interrupted his plans. During war time he joined the Merchant Marine as he did not want to kill anybody. He served as a navigator and enjoyed making repeated trips across the oceans to different continents.
During his military service he got ample time to read economics, developing a very keen interest in the subject. During the last year of the war, he taught celo-navigation at the Maritime Service Officers' School in Alameda, California.
He returned to UC after the war and proceeded to pursue a PhD in economics. He completed his doctorate in 1952 with M. M. Knight as his mentor and thesis advisor. His dissertation was on the history of life insurance in the United States.
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He had begun working as an assistant professor of economics at the University of Washington in 1951, even before completing his doctorate. He held this position until 1956 when he was promoted to an associate professor.
He was invited by Solomon Fabricant, who was then director of research at the National Bureau of Economic Research, to do research for a year at the Bureau as a research associate. North spent 1956-57 there during which period he also performed empirical work with Simon Kuznets for a week.
In 1960, he accepted the position of professor of economics at the University of Washington where he would remain for more than two decades until 1983. He also served as the chair of the economics department from 1967-79.
He served as the Peterkin Professor of Political Economy at Rice University in 1979 and as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University in 1981-82. In 1983, he joined the faculty of Washington University in Saint Louis as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Law and Liberty in the Department of Economics.
Over the course of his career, he also served as an advisor to governments around the world including China, Latin America and elsewhere. He was highly respected as an adviser in Eastern Europe and new independent former Soviet states in the 1990s.
His stature as an internationally reputed economist reached its pinnacle after he won the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Working along with other prominent economists like Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson, he helped found the International Society for the New Institutional Economics (ISNIE) which held its first meeting in St. Louis in 1997.
Douglass North was the author or co-author of several important publications including ‘Structure and Change in Economic History’ (1981), ‘Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance’ (1990), ‘Empirical Studies in Institutional Change’ (1996), and ‘Understanding the Process of Economic Change’ (2005).
Major Works
An economic historian, he was one of the founding fathers of the influential new institutional economics and brought about a rigorous analysis to the study of institutional dynamics. His research areas also included property rights, transaction costs, and economic organization in history as well as economic development in developing countries.
Awards & Achievements
In 1991, he won the John R. Commons Award, which was established by the International Honors Society for Economics in 1965. He was the first economic historian to do so.
Douglass North and Robert W. Fogel were jointly awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1993 “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change."
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Lois Heister in 1944. They had three sons and his wife eventually became a successful politician in the Washington State legislature. Their marriage, however, unraveled over time and the couple divorced.
His second marriage was to Elisabeth Case in 1972.
He suffered from esophageal cancer and died on November 23, 2015, at the age of 95.

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