Professor Robert Fogel: Economic historian vilified for his research on slave plantations

As a student at Cornell he was a leader in the youth wing of the Communist Party of the USA

Academics and policy-makers often talk of the importance of interdisciplinary research, but few have undertaken it as well as Robert William Fogel, who has died at the age of 86. His primary achievement, cited in the award in 1993 of the Nobel Prize for Economics (jointly with Douglass North), was to integrate economic theory, quantification and history, but his work continued and broadened further, embracing demography, nutrition and ageing.

Bob's second book, Railways and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964) both exemplified his own research style and led his whole subject of economic history in a new direction. He took an old question, that of the impact of the railways on the American economy, and approached it in a novel way, known as "counterfactual history". He outraged the traditionalists when he (hypothetically) built an entire network of canals and demonstrated that they could, for several decades, have transported America's freight almost as well as did the railways; the latter could not therefore, he concluded, be responsible for American prosperity. To reach this conclusion, he employed economic theory and statistics together with a close attention to historical sources, all hallmarks of what came to be called the "new economic history" or "cliometrics" - after Clio, the muse of history.

The work on railroads excited economic historians, but it was his collaboration with Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross: the rise and fall of American Negro Slavery (1974) that brought him wider public attention. Slavery had long been thought to be not only immoral - except by the slaveowners - but also inefficient, maintained in the South for reasons of custom and prestige and based on a black workforce that exhibited low productivity and poor skills. Fogel and Engerman tried, in a back-of-the-envelope calculation, to work out exactly how inefficient slavery had been; to their initial great surprise, they found that it was in fact profitable. Time on the Cross and its successor Without Consent or Contract: the rise and fall of American Slavery (1989) bolstered and documented this finding through painstaking work on plantation and demographic records.

Many readers were outraged. The finding that slavery could be profitable seemed to suggest that it could be justified. Other orthodoxies were challenged by Fogel and Engerman, for example the view that slavery had conditioned the black population to laziness and lack of enterprise, an argument sometimes used to explain the poor economic performance of the South after the Civil War. Critics attacked on all fronts; woundingly for Fogel, some of them were fellow protagonists in the methodological battles that he had fought within economic history. He was even accused of racial prejudice; it was a ludicrous charge to level at a Jew married to a black woman. Bob, however, never shirked controversy. He later said that he dealt with critics of the new economic history like "Lenin confronting the Mensheviks." The analogy was well chosen, for much of Bob's early life was spent as a Communist youth organiser. He was born in New York in 1926, the second son of successful Russian Jewish immigrants and, while at Cornell University, became first a communist, then a professional organiser for the party. Shortly after he met and in 1949 married - recklessly, as he later put it - Enid Cassandra Morgan, with whom he had two sons. Two fierce intellects, schooled in Marxism - though in Enid's case with a strong admixture of Christian socialism - made a powerful but delightful couple and a happy marriage, devoted to their family and hospitable to their friends, which ended only with Enid's death in 2007. He always said that family was more important to him than academic success

Despite doubts, Bob and Enid's loyalty to their increasingly persecuted colleagues kept them in the Communist Party. But by 1956 they had come to see "that Communist claims of an imminent collapse of capitalism were wishful thinking" and they resigned. Bob returned to academia to secure a PhD. Remarkably, perhaps, in the aftermath of McCarthyism, he was appointed to posts at Johns Hopkins, Rochester and then, in 1964, the University of Chicago. Both Anglophiles, he and Enid loved his year as Pitt Professor of American History at Cambridge in 1975.  He moved to Harvard in 1976 before returning to Chicago in 1981 to spend the rest of his career there, latterly as director of the Center for Population Economics in the Booth Business School. A signal achievement was to establish, in 1978, the continuing, wide-ranging and successful research programme in economic history at the National Bureau of Economic Research; this kept the subject within the powerhouse of American economics. He received many academic honours and served as President of the American Economic Association.

Later years saw Bob engaged in less controversial but arguably even more influential research, combined with the teaching of graduate students that he loved. He turned to the large topic, indeed a worldwide phenomenon, of the decline in mortality and rise in life expectancy, which has transformed every society and economy. His approach was again novel; he sought to understand American health through the bodies of its citizens and those who migrated there, using historical evidence on their heights and other body measurements as a sensitive indicator of their health and living standards. This approach, initially derided by economists and historians, has now become a staple tool for understanding economic and societal change, under the title of "anthropometric history", summed up in The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World since 1700 (2011), written with myself, Harris and Hong.

The last two decades of his life were occupied in collecting and interpreting data from the Union Army pension records, an enormous collection of medical examinations of veterans from the northern armies in the Civil War, followed to their deaths. These data, with other sources, illuminate the effects of early-life nutrition, the extent of chronic disease, the impact of wartime conditions and, most important, the process of ageing. This project demonstrated Bob's skills in recruiting and mobilising an inter-disciplinary team of historians, economists, computer scientists and human biologists, enthusing them and overcoming financial hurdles, while keeping a firm grasp on all the historical, theoretical and statistical problems which such a large project brings.

Bob's ability to discover new data and conjure new findings often seemed magical; in fact, he had been a keen amateur magician and later delighted our children with his tricks and electronic gadgets. But the real magic stemmed from an ability to pare down a problem to its essentials and then discover the relevant historical evidence. He was no zealot for quantification, seeing it as a tool for understanding past and present. Few others can claim to have had such an impact on an academic discipline. His own mentor was Simon Kuznets, the founder of national income analysis and the subject of Bob's recent Political Arithmetic: Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics. But to those who worked with him it was Bob who was the exemplar of scholar, colleague and friend.

He is survived by his two sons, Michael and Steven, by five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Robert William Fogel, economic historian: born New York 1 July 1926; married 1949 Enid Cassandra Morgan (died 2007; two son); died Chicago 11 June 2013.

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