Robert Fogel died today. The Nobel-Prize winning economist was 86. There is a wonderful obituary for him, describing his life and his impact on the study of economic history in the NYTimes. I'd like to offer some personal reflections on this man because he played an important role in my decision to return to studying economics.
I took two courses from Professor Fogel in the winter and spring of 1967 during his first few years at The University of Chicago. I was technically a Chicago Theological Seminary student, but I had pretty much decided to leave seminary. Fortunately, the seminary was affiliated with The University of Chicago, and I was able to take some economics courses there to complement my theological studies.
One of the courses I took was called "Strategic Factors in American Economic Growth" and was taught by Fogel. I had no idea who Fogel was, and I thought I was going to study economic theory about economic growth.
I got to the first day of class and realized, much to my chagrin, that I had actually registered for a course in Economic History. Bleah. I had absolutely no interest in studying economic history. But Fogel was captivating in that first class (of about 20 grad students and 5 upper-level undergrads).
I signed up to give the first in-class presentation (about three weeks hence) and had a blast. Fogel was a treat -- he worked us through the "new" methodology of economic history which was basically just seeking data and subjecting hypotheses to empirical test. I also started attending the Economic History workshops, where I learned a great deal and again had a wonderful time. Despite my horrid undergraduate record, Professor Fogel tried to get fellowship money for me to continue my studies in economic history there, but my record was just too horrid for that to happen.
At one point I asked him, "What did you do before you went to graduate school?"
He replied, "I was a professional student radical."
Fogel: "Actually I was an organizer for the Communist Party."
I was stunned. He seemed like a traditionally neo-classical economist to me.
"What happened? What made you leave that?"
"I kept predicting the demise of capitalism, and it wasn't happening, so I decided to study why."
Fogel was such an inspiration to me that when I continued my graduate studies in economics at Iowa State University, I tried to specialize in economic history. It didn't work out there, but I did manage to take some courses on the History of Technology in the engineering faculty, and one of the papers I wrote for one of those courses (in the spirit of everything I had learned from Fogel), led to my first academic publication, "Ancient Metal Technology and Cultural Dispersion: An Economic Analysis of Three Aspects."
Fogel's enthusiastic and open support for me was a source of strength. It helped build my confidence and reassure me that I had a future in economics.
I loved that man.