Who was Robert Fogel?
Robert Fogel was an American economic historian and scientist who won a share of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences along with Douglass North. Best remembered for his advocacy of the use of quantitative methods in history, he was also known for his controversial views about the economics of slavery. A bold and confident man, he was an independent thinker who never shied away from expressing his beliefs irrespective of the consequences. His range of research was extraordinarily wide and he was called “the original interdisciplinary scholar” by Robert A. Margo, professor of economics at Boston University. The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to the US, he was intellectually curious from a young age and initially aspired for a career in science. However, an increasing interest in economics led him to Cornell University, where he majored in history with an economics minor. He proceeded to obtain an MA in economics from Columbia University and completed his PhD from Johns Hopkins University. He eventually embarked on an academic career and performed extensive research on understanding the factors that contribute to economic growth. Though primarily an economic historian, he also performed significant research on varied topics such as demographics, physiology, sociology of the family, nutrition, and other fields.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert William Fogel was born on July 1, 1926, in New York City, New York, US, to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants from Odessa. He had one elder brother. His parents were hard-working people who established several small businesses and raised their children in a happy and comfortable environment.
His brother, who was six years his senior and nine years ahead of him in school, was a major influence on the young boy during his growing years. Young Robert grew up listening to the discussions his brother would have with his classmates about the social and economic issues of the Depression.
He graduated from the Stuyvesant High School in 1944. Even though he loved literature, history and science as a teenager, he became more interested in economics with time and chose to major in history with an economics minor from Cornell University. During his college years he also became president of the campus branch of American Youth for Democracy, a communist organization.
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He graduated in 1948 with a B.A. and became a professional organizer for the Communist Party, a job he held for eight years. He then proceeded to the Columbia University, where he studied under George Stigler and obtained an M.A. in economics in 1960.
He began his research career as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester in 1960. In 1963, he earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins University under the guidance of Simon Kuznets.
He accepted the job of an associate professor at the University of Chicago in 1964. He was also a visiting professor at Rochester in autumn semesters from 1968 to 1975.
His first major book, based on his PhD dissertation, was ‘Railroads and American Economic Growth’ published in 1964. In this work he gave an extremely detailed application of the important economic principle that there is a substitute for virtually everything and demonstrated that the onset of the railroad was not indispensable to the American economy.
Fogel, in collaboration with his University of Rochester colleague Stanley Engerman published the book ‘Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery’ (1974). The authors contradicted contemporary assessments of the effects of slavery on African Americans in the American South before the Civil War. The book proved to be a controversial one and generated much furor in the media.
He joined the Harvard University in 1975 and worked as a research associate under the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge from 1978. He returned to the University of Chicago in 1981 as the director of the newly created Center for Population Economics at the Booth School of Business.
In 1989, he published ‘Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery’ in response to criticism of his earlier work ‘Time on the Cross.’ In this book he focused much more on the social aspects versus economics aspects of slavery and provided references to factors such as the high infant mortality rate from overworked pregnant women and the cruel conditions in which the slaves were kept.
He remained active in research and co-authored books well into the last years of his life. His last works include ‘The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700’ (2011) which he co-wrote with Roderick Floud, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong, and ‘Explaining Long-Term Trends in Health and Longevity’ (2012).
An advocate of Cliometrics—the systematic application of economic theory, econometric techniques, and other formal or mathematical methods to the study of history—Robert Fogel was noted for using careful empirical work to question conventional wisdom. He is considered as the father of modern econometric history.
Awards & Achievements
The book ‘Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery’ which Fogel co-authored with Stanley L. Engerman won the Bancroft Prize in 1975.
Fogel and Douglass C. North were jointly awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 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
Robert Fogel met Enid Cassandra Morgan, an ambitious African-American woman, in 1948 and fell in love with her. The American society at that time did not approve of interracial marriages but this did not deter the couple from tying the knot in 1949. They faced considerable difficulties due to anti-miscegenation laws but remained steadfast in their commitment to each other. They had two sons, Michael and Steven. His wife died in 2007.
Fogel died on June 11, 2013, following a short illness. He was 86.