Economics at Johns Hopkins

Shield of the Johns Hopkins University

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The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, was probably the first research university in the United States.  It was founded in 1876 by Johns Hopkins, a wealthy Quaker businessman, with Baltimore & Ohio Railroad stock.  Its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman was primarily responsible for setting it up on the "German" seminar model of serious research for earned advanced degrees, like the Ph.D.   

From the outset in 1876, economics was planned into the curriculum of the Department of Moral and Historical Sciences.  Francis A. Walker was tapped to be its first permanent professor of political economy, but he declined the offer, taking on a visiting position instead.  Feelers were placed out to several others, but, until the 1880s, Ph.D. students in economics had to live off a diet offered by visiting scholars.  The first economics Ph.D. at Hopkins was awarded to Henry Carter Adams in 1878.

In 1881, getting quite desperate, Gilman appointed two young instructors on a full-time basis -- Richard T. Ely and Herbert Baxter Adams (no relation to H.C. Adams).   Ely and Adams were both the "New Generation" of American economists, both trained in the German Historical School tradition at Heidelberg under Karl Knies.  Ely and Adams immediately set the historicist tone of the department and attracted  numerous graduate students.  Economics was rewarded by being given partial autonomy in 1889.

Keen for participation by senior faculty, Gilman tried to cajole the Hopkins mathematician and astronomer Simon Newcomb to teach courses in political economy.  However Newcomb, an early convert to Neoclassicism and a prominent "apologist", was not disposed to accommodate himself with the young historicists.  A bruising, internal Methodenstreit followed.  In 1884-5, Newcomb publicly (and privately) attacked Ely and the historical method.  Ely was suspicious that President Gilman, a friend of Newcomb's, might start listening and get rid of him.  Knowing that Gilman was hungry to put Johns Hopkins on the map, Ely called upon his network of like-minded, German-trained "New Generation" economists and set up the American Economic Association in 1885.  Ely's capital move was to harness F.A. Walker into his ring.  It certainly impressed Gilman.   

However, in 1885-6, Newcomb and Ely were at each other's throats again.  Ely directed his students to review Newcomb's books unfavorably, while Newcomb (an examiner on the economics Ph.D committee) continued to communicate to Gilman his irritation at finding Ely's students so "unscientifically" trained.  In the summer of 1886, Newcomb and Ely exchanged public blows with each other in the pages of Science magazine.  For the first time, Newcomb accused Ely openly of being a "socialist".  Ely did not deny the charge.

After the Haymarket Riots of 1886, economists were called upon to take sides on the "labor question". Ely and his students defended the labor movement. Newcomb lined himself up immediately against them and publicly accused Ely of being "unfit" to hold a university chair.  Given the mood of the times, Ely's days seemed numbered.  Nonethelesss, Gilman promoted him to associate professor and, in turn, Ely toned down his socialist rhetoric.

The creation of Chicago and Stanford in the early 1890s seemed to strengthen Ely's position, with his Hopkins students being much courted by the new research universities. Emboldened, Ely demanded tenure and the autonomy of the economics department at Johns Hopkins.  President Gilman refused and, in early 1892, Ely resigned and left for the University of Wisconsin -- taking a string of graduate students with him, including William A. Scott, David Kinley and Charles J. Bullock. (another student, Frederick Jackson Turner, had gone on ahead was instrumental in securing Wisconsin's invitation to Ely).

Sidney Sherwood, a Hopkins Ph.D. and recent convert to the marginalist revolution, took over the chairmanship and brought the department away from its radical historicist roots.  To stop the haemorrhage occasioned by Ely's departure, John Bates Clark from Smith College and Henry C. Adams from Michigan were lured in 1892 as visiting professors.   That same year, Simon Newcomb crossed the border and gave a series of lectures on mathematical economics. Sherwood promptly organized a study group (which included J.H. Hollander, T.N.Carver, D.I. Green and others) to examine the new works of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Alfred Marshall.  Henry L. Moore, a student of Newcomb and Clark, began as an instructor in the department in 1896.

Hopkins was unable to hold on to J.B. Clark, who took up a position at Columbia in 1895.  H.L. Moore left for Smith College in 1898.  Dana Durand and W.F. Willoughby were appointed in 1900, but the changing of the guard really only began in 1901, with the retirement of President Gilman and the untimely deaths of economist Sherwood and historian Henry Baxter Adams.  That same year, the economics department was finally granted a separate existence and two Hopkins Ph.Ds, Jacob H. Hollander and George E. Barnett took charge of the department.  In 1904, almost thirty years after its creation and after 579 economics Ph.Ds had been granted, the Johns Hopkins University finally got around to appointing its first full Professor of Political Economy.  The honor fell upon Jacob Hollander.

However, by the early 1900s, the glory days of Johns Hopkins were clearly in the past.  Columbia and Wisconsin had surged ahead in the production of the next generation, while Harvard, Chicago and Cornell were not far behind.  Nonetheless, Hopkins-trained economists continued to dominate the American economics scene long after Hopkins itself had lost its monopoly on student-creation.  

Hollander's baton was passed on to George H. Evans in the interwar period.  Johns Hopkins got a second lease on life after the Second World War, with the a slate of exciting new appointments -- particularly Fritz Machlup and Evsey Domar in 1948.  The empirical side was strengthened with the appointment of Simon Kuznets and Carl Christ in the 1950s.  

The departure of Machlup, Kuznets and Domar circa 1960 led to a transition period in the department, although the appointments of Musgrave, Lancaster and Adelman helped hold the ship together.  The late 1960s saw the appointment of a new generation --  Bela Balassa, Jürg Niehans, Peter Newman,  Hugh Rose and others, who were to guide the department for the next couple of decades.




Resources on The Johns Hopkins Economics

  • Department of Economics at the Johns Hopkins University
  • "On foundation of the Johns Hopkins University" by J. Taylor Kay, 1889, Nature (Aug 8, p.347-48)
  • "Obituaries of Herbert Baxter Adams and Sidney Sherwood", 1901, Johns Hopkins Circular, p.8-9
  • Bibliography of the Department of History, Politics and Economics of the Johns Hopkins University, 1876-1901, 1902 [bk]
  • "The Johns Hopkins University" in Kibble's Cyclopedia of Education, 1883
  • "Johns Hopkins archives" at Irwin Collier's Economics in the Rear-view Mirror blog
  • Wiki


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