By Ariel Scheib
Robert William Fogel was born on July 1, 1926, in New
York City. He attended Cornell and received a B.A. in 1948, obtained
his M.A. in 1960 from Columbia, and his Ph.D. from John Hopkins in 1963.
It was at Cornell that Fogel became interested in
the correlations between history and economics. He began utilizing quantitative
methods to answer questions involving the economic impact of specific
historical event current society. At Johns Hopkins, Fogel was guided
and supervised on his doctoral dissertation by Simon Kuznets (Nobel
Prize recipient 1971). Under the guidance of Kuznets, Fogel attempted
to explain the economic impact of the development of railroads in the
19th century on the growth of American markets.
Fogel worked at Rochester University (early 1960s),
the University of Chicago (1960s), and Harvard (1970s). In 1981, Fogel
returned to the University of Chicago to replace George Stigler as the
Charles R. Walgreen Professor of American Institutions.
His most famous and controversial work was Time on
the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, a 1974 two-volume
quantitative study of American slavery co-written with Stanley Engelman.
They argued that slavery had been a valuable industry for the economy
and had collapsed because of political, rather than economic reasons.
Fogel has also researched the effects of microeconomics on technological
revolutions and modifications in the demographics of the national population
and the labor force.
Fogel won the Nobel
Prize for Economics in 1993, along with Douglass Cecil North, “for
having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory
and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional
change." Fogel and North are acknowledged for their use of quantitative
methods in analyzing history and life-cycles, and their development
of cliometrics- the utilization of statistical data to understand economic
The following press release
from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
describes Fogel’s work:
Robert W. Fogel's scientific breakthrough was his book
(1964) on the role of the railways in the American economy. Joseph Schumpeter
and Walt W. Rostow had earlier, with general agreement, asserted that
modern economic growth was due to certain important discoveries having
played a vital role in development. Fogel tested this hypothesis with
extraordinary exactitude, and rejected it. The sum of many specific
technical changes, rather than a few great innovations, determined the
economic development. We find it intuitively plausible that the great
transport systems play a decisive role in development. Fogel constructed
a hypothetical alternative, a so called counterfactual historiography;
that is he compared the actual course of events with the hypothetical
to allow a judgement of the importance of the railways. He found that
they were not absolutely necessary in explaining economic development
and that their effect on the growth of GNP was less than three per cent.
Few books on the subject of economic history have made such an impression
as Fogel's. His use of counterfactual arguments and cost-benefit analysis
made him an innovator of economic historical methodology.
Fogel's painstaking criticism of his sources, and his
use of the most varying kinds of historical material, made it difficult
for his critics to argue against him on purely empirical grounds. As
Fogel has stressed, it is the lack of relevant data rather than the
lack of relevant theory that is often the greater problem for research
workers. Fogel's use of counterfactual analysis of the course of events
and his masterful treatment of quantitative techniques in combination
with economic theory, have had a substantial influence on the understanding
of economic change.
Fogel's second work of importance (1974), which aroused
great attention and bitter controversies, treated slavery as an institution
and its role in the economic development of the United States. Fogel
showed that the established opinion that slavery was an ineffective,
unprofitable and pre-capitalist organisation was incorrect. The institution
did not fall to pieces due to its economic weakness but collapsed because
of political decisions. He showed that the system, in spite of its inhumanity,
had been economically efficient.
His exceedingly careful testing of all possible sources
and his pioneering methodological approach have allowed Fogel to both
increase our knowledge of an institution's operation and disintegration
and to renew our methods of research. Both his book on the railways
and that on slavery have forced researchers to reconsider earlier generally
accepted results, and few books in economic history have been scrutinised
in such detail by critical colleagues.
Fogel's third area of research has been economic demography,
and in particular the changing rate of mortality over long periods of
time and its relation to changes in the standard of living during recent
centuries. This project is less controversial than the other two, and
is both interdisciplinary and international, with fellow workers from
many countries. His conclusion is that less than half of the decrease
in mortality can be explained by better standards of nourishment, before
the breakthroughs of modern medicine. This leaves the greater part of
the decline unexplained. According to Fogel, a systematic analysis demands
an integrated study of mortality rates, morbidity rates, food intake
and individual body weights and statures. A combination of biomedical
and economic techniques is required to achieve this, something that
he has at present set about accomplishing. It is already apparent that
his analyses will affect research in economic history at many levels.
William Fogel Autobiography"; Britannica;