Death of a cliometrician: an obituary

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Although I am only a few years younger than Robert W. Fogel I was startled —and saddened—to learn that he had passed away, age 86, in Oak Lawn, Illinois.

He was a controversial figure not only among academics but also among a section of the lay public especially among those who were convinced that he was defending slavery.

It was this controversy that attracted me to his book Time on the Cross, a two-volume work that he co-authored with Stanley L. Engermann.

Slavery, they hypothesized, was not the inefficient system that its critics said it was. They came to this conclusion by studying mortality records, typical diseases of indentured workers, rates of productivity and cotton yields before the American Civil War.

After meticulous examination of the data, they concluded that slavery was highly efficient in both scale and productivity. They admitted that slaves were treated a little better than livestock but they were neither abused nor worked to death. They even went as far as to say that plantation slaves in the South were generally better looked after than industrial workers in the North of the United States.

My appetite whetted, I went on to read Dr. Fogel’s earlier book, Railroads and American Economic Growth, based on his doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins University. He argued that railroads were far less important to the expansion of the economy of America that later historians and economists had claimed.

He was a cliometrician. He applied the methods of history, sociology, demography and statistics to the study of economic theory.

Towards the end of his career he focused on demography and living standards to questions of health and longevity. No conclusions were derived but he found that throughout much of recorded history shorter people with lower body mass were more prone to disease. From this discovery he pored over military draft records, census records from the middle of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century to demonstrate empirically that better health led to higher labor productivity. He calculated that about a third of the per capita economic growth in Britain between 1790 and 1980 was attributable to better food quality.

Dr. Fogel’s range of knowledge was very wide. His economic history of Britain (which I have not read) involved, according to Dr. Robert A. Margo, economic professor at Boston University involved medicine, physiology, demography , statistics, economics and of course history. Folger was, in Margo’s view, “the original interdisciplinary scholar.”

I am not an economist, nor an historian, but I have always believed in the essential unity of knowledge.

May Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate, continue to be a guide to those who dare cast their net farther and wider.

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