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Professor Phyllis Deane: Leading and influential figure in the field of economic history


Deane was attracted by research but not by teaching; she always disliked showing off

Phyllis Deane was a major figure in the era when economic history was an important and expanding and vibrant discipline in Britain. She was brought to the Department of Applied Economics at Cambridge in 1950, where she quietly rose through the academic ranks. She unassumingly made an impact on the national mind for a good half century and her textbook The First Industrial Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1965) was immensely influential for several generations of students, running to several reprints.

She was an economist and a historian, in the period when it was possible to be both. She was born in Hong Kong just before the end of the First World War, the daughter of an Admiralty engineer who moved around the Empire and ended up in Glasgow. She was educated first at the Hutcheson's Girls' grammar school and then at the University of Glasgow, where it was possible to graduate with an MA in economics and history, as she did in 1940.

She was strongly influenced by two teachers at Glasgow: the old Professor WR Scott, famous for his three volumes on The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish and Irish joint-stock companies to 1720 (1910-12), a "poppet", she said; the other the young lecturer Alex Cairncross, just back in Glasgow from Cambridge (ie. Keynes) – "captivatingly brilliant", she said.

She then moved to London, where she remained based for the rest of the 1940s. She was attracted by research, by the careful finding-out of things, and not at all by teaching; she always disliked showing off. She was a research officer, first for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and then, after the war, for the Colonial Office. She spent some time in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (as they then were) working up from family income surveys and mining accounts to the first estimates of total national income. Later, from her desk in London, she produced the first national income accounts for Nigeria. Her first publications were about the measurement of colonial national incomes and colonial social accounts.

In 1950 she was invited by Dick Stone (later Professor Sir Richard Stone) to join him at the Department of Applied Economics in Cambridge. This famously productive department – originally established after the war for Maynard Keynes to direct, but he died too soon to do so – engaged in research into economic realities, past and present. She was soon at home there. There were two triumphant products, books that mark an era in British economic history: Deane with WA Cole on British Economic Growth, 1688-1959 and BR Mitchell with Deane, Abstract of British Historical Statistics, both published by the Cambridge University Press in 1962. For a generation, these were the central works in a tradition going back to Gregory King and Adam Smith. "Deane and Cole" and "Mitchell and Deane" mark the beginning of the high point of British economic history as a discipline.

Deane was tempted into teaching, and as a clear and direct thinker and speaker, she did very well. She became a lecturer in economics at Cambridge in 1961, Reader in Economic History in 1971, and despite the grudging way in which Cambridge awards the title of professor, Professor of Economic History for the two years before she retired in 1983. In these years, she gave a lecture course in economic history for students of economics, focusing in particular on the industrial revolution, and it was the publication of the textbook based on these lectures that made her name.

She next wrote an admirably clear account of The evolution of economic ideas (also Cambridge University Press, 1978), and also much reprinted. Cambridge University Press kept pressing her for a revised edition of her The First Industrial Revolution, but she did not want to bother to go over ground already covered. The increasingly econometric fussiness of "the new economic history" did not appeal to her. She did not like empty economic boxes. She liked them filled with human variety.

Her last work was a biography of Keynes's father, The life and times of J Neville Keynes (2001), an admirable man who wrote one important book on economics and then became a Cambridge administrator, in the days when there were intelligent administrators. The CUP stupidly and petulantly refused to publish it. It was published elsewhere.

Professor Deane was terrifically good and efficient at organising anything she thought worthwhile. She edited the Economic Journal from 1968 to 1975, and she was President of the Royal Economic Society in 1980-82. For many years she represented the Royal Economic Society on the Council of the Economic History Society. She worked hard for Newnham College in Cambridge, where she was an active Fellow from 1961. She was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1980. Direct, careful, caring, sensible, brisk when necessary, no-nonsense; she had a look in her eye that was not cynical, but sceptical, certainly undermining of pomposity in any form.

She has been captured for posterity by two interesting video interviews, one by Nick Crafts (for the Institute of Historical Research in 1995) and one by me (for the Economic History Society in 2002). Her long-time companion, Joan Porter, died a few years ago.

Phyllis Mary Deane, economic historian: born Hong Kong 13 October 1918; Department of Applied Economics, Cambridge 1950-61; Lecturer in Economics 1961-71, Reader in Economic History 1971-81, Professor of Economic History 1981-83, and subsequently Emeritus Professor, University of Cambridge; Fellow of Newnham College 1961-83, and subsequently Honorary Fellow; FBA (1980); partner to Joan Porter; died Cambridge 28 July 2012