Early Years & Childhood
John Harsanyi was born as Harsányi János Károly on May 29, 1920 in Budapest, Hungary, into a family of Jewish descent. His father Charles Harsanyi had a diploma in pharmacology and owned a pharmacy, deriving a comfortable income from it. His mother Alice (née Gombos) Harsanyi was very passionate about music.
John, his parents’ only child, was born a year after Charles and Alice had converted to Catholicism. Raised as a Christian, he regularly attended a Catholic church on Sundays. Yet, because of their Jewish origin, his parents had to pay a higher fee at the gymnasium.
Harsanyi began his education at home, studying under private tutors until the second grade. Later, in elementary school, he detested doing mental mathematics, finding it rather boring.
Possibly in 1929, he entered ‘Fasori Lutheran Gymnasium’, one of the most famous schools in Budapest. There, among other subjects, he also studied physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy and mathematics as well as languages like German, French, Latin and classical Greek. Very soon, mathematics became his most favorite subject.
At the suggestion of his mathematics teacher, Harsanyi subscribed to the ‘Középiskolai Matematikai és Fizikai Lapok’ (KöMaL), a monthly mathematics and physics journal meant for high school students. It published mathematical problems for the students to solve. Encouraged by his teacher, he began to submit answers, soon becoming KöMaL’s best problem solver.
In 1937, he won the first prize in the Eötvös, a national mathematics competition for high school students in Hungary. Later in the same year, he graduated from the gymnasium and hoped to pursue mathematics and philosophy for his higher studies. But his father had different plans for him.
In 1939, Harsanyi was sent to France to study chemical engineering at the ‘University of Lyon’. As the Second World War broke out in 1939, his parents called him back to Budapest, where he began to study pharmacology the ‘University of Budapest’.
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During World War II
Hungary officially entered the Second World War on 26 June, 1941. The young men were recruited in the army, but those suspected of having a Jewish descent were subjected to forced labor. Since John Harsanyi was a pharmacy student, he escaped conscription in the army and was free to pursue his studies, earning his diploma in pharmacology in 1944.
After earning his diploma in pharmacology, he decided to earn his PhD degree, mainly to avoid conscription. Although chemistry was his natural choice, none of the professors at the university agreed to take him as a student, possibly because of his Jewish descent. Finally, he was able to find a botany professor, who agreed to mentor him.
In March 1944, Germans entered Hungary and registered Harsanyi for forced labor in May. His job involved loading and unloading the ammunitions from cellars near Budapest. He was required to wear a white armband while performing these duties, indicating that he was a ‘Catholic Jew’.
On 10 October, 1944, the Austrian Nazi Party Arrow Cross came to power in Hungary and decided to deport the people of Jewish origin. Harsanyi was also rounded up.
On 15 November, 1944, he was taken to a railway station to be deported to a concentration camp in Austria. After mulling over the idea for some time, he took off his white band and walked out of the station, pretending to be one of the non-Jewish civilians, who had come to collect merchandise.
Once out of the station, Harsanyi dropped his rucksack, which contained all his clothes and headed for a Jesuit monastery, where he found refuge. For two months, he lived there along with some other Jews. Hidden in the cellar, the group survived only on bean soup for months.
On 17 January 1945, the Russians entered the monastery and allowed them to escape. Eventually, he was reunited with his family and after returning home, they reopened the pharmacy. In 1946, he returned to the ‘University of Budapest’ to earn his PhD in philosophy, with minors in sociology and psychology.
In June 1947, he earned his PhD after successfully defending his dissertation ‘The Logical Structure of Philosophical Errors’. In September that year, he was appointed a ‘university assistant’ in sociology at the ‘University of Budapest’.
In June 1948, he resigned from his position, primarily because he could not reconcile himself with the communist ideology of the ruling regime. He then started working at his father’s pharmacy before ultimately deciding to leave Hungary.
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In 1950, John Harsanyi illegally left Hungary. He was accompanied by his future wife and her parents. His mother had passed away by then, while his father had decided to stay back, being too old to adjust to a new life.
Harsanyi and his group first crossed a mountain to reach Austria, where they lived for seven months, waiting for the permit to enter Australia. Thereafter, they moved to Italy, from where they sailed for Australia, landing in Sydney on 30 December 1950.
As his English was poor and his Hungarian degree had no value in Australia, Harsanyi spent the first two and a half years, working in a factory, where he subsequently became a statistical clerk. Concurrently, he enrolled in the ‘University of Sydney’, joining evening classes in economics.
Fortunately, he was given credit for the years he spent at the Hungarian university. Therefore, while it normally took six years to earn a B.A. and an M.A. degree, Harsanyi received his M.A. degree in economics only three years after arriving in Australia. His M.A. thesis was entitled ‘Research Policy of Business Firm’.
In the early 1950s, he published two important papers. One of them was on the use of von Neumann-Morgenstern utility functions in welfare economics, while the other one focused on the welfare economics of variable taste. Around this time, John Nash’s papers on game theory roused his interest in the subject.
In 1954, John Harsanyi began his career as an external studies lecturer at the ‘University of Queensland’, Brisbane. His duties involved writing lecture notes for students, who pursued correspondence courses. During this period, he also developed an interest in the interdisciplinary studies, especially game theory.
In 1956, he earned a one-year ‘Rockefeller Fellowship’ and with that, he traveled to Stanford, USA, and began to work for his doctoral degree in economics under Kenneth Arrow. Concurrently, on Arrow’s advice, he also began to study mathematics.
In 1956, Harsanyi wrote a paper, showing the mathematical equivalence of bargaining models of Frederick Zeuthen and John F. Nash. In this work, he also stated algebraic criteria for optimal threat strategies.
After the fellowship ended in 1957, he started teaching in Stanford before receiving his doctoral degree in the same year. In 1958, his student visa expired and he returned to Australia, settling down in Canberra, where he got a reputable research job at the ‘Australian National University’.
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In Canberra, he started working on game theory. But very soon, he began to feel isolated as the concept was virtually unknown in Australia and therefore he decided to migrate to the USA.
In 1961, with the help of Kenneth Arrow and Jim Tobin, he received an appointment at the ‘Wayne State University’ in Detroit. Although he was a little hesitant initially, he took the job up and moved to the USA in the same year. He worked as the professor of economics at Wayne until 1963.
In 1963, Harsanyi was appointed a visiting professor at the ‘Hass School of Business’ of the ‘University of California’, Barkley. Two years later, his position became a permanent one. In 1966, he accepted a joint appointment as an economics faculty member. All the while, he continued to work on game theory.
In 1963, he began to work on the Shapely Value of game theory, which was a solution concept introduced by Lloyd Shapely 10 years ago. Harsanyi provided a new solution concept and proved that it was generalization of the Shapley value and Nash's bargaining solution with variable threats.
Between 1967 and 1968, he published a three-part paper on game theory, showing how to convert a game with incomplete information into the one with complete yet imperfect information. Entitled, ‘Games with Incomplete Information Played by “Bayesian” Players’, it gave rise to a new theory for the analysis of games with incomplete information.
At Barkley, in addition to working on game theory, Harsanyi also began to work on ethics, publishing his first book, ‘Essays on Ethics, Social Behaviour, and Scientific Explanation’ in 1976. It contained a number of articles that he had written for various journals.
Harsanyi published his second book, ‘Rational Behaviour and Bargaining Equilibrium in Games and Social Situation’ in 1977. In it, he attempted to unify game theory, extending the use of bargaining models from cooperative games to non-cooperative games.
In the 1980s, he published two more books. Among them, ‘Papers in Game Theory’ (1982) was a collection of his journal articles and ‘A General Theory of Equilibrium Selection in Games’ (1988) was a joint work with Reinhard Selten.
Harsanyi retired from the ‘Hass School of Business of the University of California, Barkley’ in 1990. He, however, continued his research works, publishing two more papers in 1993 and 1994. All along, he continued to inspire his students and colleagues by his bold and powerful ideas.
Family & Personal Life
When John Harsanyi was teaching at the ‘University of Budapest’ in 1948, he met his future wife Anne Klauber, who was one of his students. Very soon, they became close, and when Harsanyi decided to leave Hungary in 1950, Anne and her parents accompanied him.
On 30 December 1950, the group reached Sydney as refugees. Since 1 January 1951 was a holiday, they had to wait until 2 January 1951 to get married, an event which took place at a registration office in Sydney. Their only child, Tom Harsanyi, was born in 1954 in Barkley.
Toward the end of his life, Harsanyi suffered from Alzheimer's disease. On 9 August 2000, he died of heart attack in Barkley, California, at the age of eighty. He was survived by his wife and son.