In Memoriam: David Landes

Jeffrey Herf and Jerry Z. Muller, January 2014


Historian of Wealth, Poverty, and Development

David Saul Landes, Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University, died on August 17, 2013, at age 89, not long after the death of his wife of 69 years, Sonia T. Landes. Born in Brooklyn on April 29, 1924, Landes was educated in New York City’s public schools and at the City College of New York, from which he graduated in 1942. The following year he earned a master’s degree from Harvard, was drafted into the army, and was accepted into the Signal Corps. There he learned Japanese and worked as a cryptanalyst, decoding messages such as those sent after the atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a historical editor for the Signal Corps, he worked in Germany in 1945 and 1946 on the German plans to defend against the Allied invasion of Normandy.

After the war, Landes returned to Harvard, where he studied with Arthur H. Cole and Donald McKay, receiving his PhD in 1953. From 1950 to 1953, he was a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He then moved to Columbia University, first as an assistant and then as associate professor. In 1957–­58, he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He was then appointed professor of history and economics at the University of California, Berkeley, a post he held until 1964, when he joined the Harvard faculty as a professor of history. He eventually held an appointment in the Department of Economics as well, and served from 1981 to 1993 as chair of Harvard’s Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, an undergraduate interdisciplinary honors program in history and the social sciences. In 1984 Landes became a senior fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows. At his retirement in 1996, he was the Coolidge Professor of History and Economics.

From the beginning, his research had a strong comparative element, exploring why Britain had been the first nation to successfully industrialize, why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in Europe, and why non-­Western societies had either succeeded or failed in attempts to catch up. Among the recurrent themes of his scholarship were the nature of entrepreneurship and of technological innovation, and the roles played by institutions and cultural predispositions in either promoting or retarding them. His first book, Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt (1958), dealt with Egypt’s failure to industrialize under Mohammed Ali in the 1860s.

It was at Berkeley that Landes wrote his long chapter on technology and industrial development for The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, VI (1965). Later published as a separate volume, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969), the study established his reputation as a leading authority in the field. It remains a standard work; its chapter on the Industrial Revolution in England is the most accessible introduction to that central topic of modern history. His 1983 book, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, regards the invention of the mechanical clock as comparable in importance to the invention of movable type, examining how and why it was invented in Europe and evaluating the importance of time discipline for European economic advance.

In 1998 Landes published what has become his most widely discussed work, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. The book was vintage Landes: the writing crisp and clear, at times passionate and at times humorous; the tone fearless yet humane. The erudition and mastery of the economic history of Europe and of many non-­European societies was daunting. While noting the importance of geography, climate, and the internal political competition that distinguished Europe from imperial China, Landes argued that some societies had become rich because they protected intellectual freedom, supported the rule of law and property rights, extended citizenship rights to more of their citizens, and favored entrepreneurship and markets. Other societies stayed poor because they suppressed the growth of knowledge, exercised arbitrary political authority, attacked markets, and denied people the right to participate in economic life on the basis of their race, religion, and gender.

Just as he examined the peculiarities of various European societies in The Unbound Prometheus, so in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations Landes replaced the blanket label “Third World” with a historian’s focus on the multitude of differing national experiences around the world. Landes challenged the idea that capitalism in Europe and the United States was the source of global poverty, and asked uneasy questions about why some countries that had suffered most from colonialism experienced more economic growth than others that had been left untouched. Landes mounted this massive and important challenge to the leftist views within the profession in ways that earned him the continuing respect of those inclined to disagree with him. (He and Eric Hobsbawm, his near contemporary, shared a mutual admiration.) The Wealth and Poverty of Nations integrated cultural with economic history in a way that reflected Landes’s enthusiasm for Adam Smith as well as for Max Weber’s comparative historical analysis.

David Landes was a scholar of great courage who challenged conventional wisdom in the academy with erudition and grace. His colleagues benefited enormously from his kindness, warmth, and the great pleasure he took in the accomplishments of others. He is survived by his son, the historian Richard Landes, by his daughters Jane Landes Foster, and Alison Landes Fiekowsky, eight grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren.

—Jeffrey Herf
University of Maryland, College Park

—Jerry Z. Muller
Catholic University

The print version of this essay provided an incorrect location for Landes's assistant and associate professorships. He was assistant and associate professor at Columbia University. This correction appears above and the authors regret the error.