Peter Newman

Friday 30 November 2001 01:00

Peter Kenneth Newman, economist: born Mitcham, Surrey 5 October 1928; Professor of Economics, University of Michigan 1959-66; Professor of Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University 1966-90; died Hamilton, New Zealand 6 November 2001.

Peter Newman was Professor of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University from 1966 to 1990, and in his retirement co-editor of The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics.

Newman's early work was of a decidedly applied character. It ranged from issues surrounding the post-war reconstruction of the British clothing industry, to problems of the Sri Lankan balance of trade, the economic prospects of British Guiana (in the early Sixties) and the relationship between malaria eradication and population growth in areas where that disease was endemic. Newman took his economics very seriously, and these contributions are a measure of how effectively he applied it to questions of immediate social significance.

The 1960s saw his attention turn (or, perhaps better, return) to pure economic theory, and to the theory of prices in particular. In this field, his contributions to the study of optimisation and stability problems were significant and profound. His mathematical exposition of the work of the enigmatic Cambridge economist Piero Sraffa remains definitive. In 1965 he published The Theory of Exchange, a uniquely challenging and insightful account of what we know (and what we do not know) about price determination. It was these contributions to the mathematical theory of value that clinched his reputation.

Newman was fond of remarking that the great achievement of mathematical developments in general equilibrium theory was that they forced theorists to say exactly what they meant – so that, at least in this one area of economics, it was rather more common for economists to know what they were talking about than in others.

Born in Mitcham in Surrey in 1928, Newman attended University College London, obtaining his first degree in 1949. After working on a series of research projects (with the Oxford Institute of Statistics, the UK government, and the United Nations), he moved to the United States and took up a Chair in Economics at the University of Michigan in 1959. This move began his connection with the North American branch of the economics profession – a connection which continued, with his appointment as the Professor of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1966, until he retired in 1990.

During his "retirement" (in Dorset) Newman continued working. In this extraordinarily active period, he produced The New Palgrave Dictionary of Money and Finance (1992) and The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law (1998). These works, and the 1987 original New Palgrave from which they sprang, were widely conceded to be landmarks in the literature of economics. Taken as a whole, they further cemented his reputation in the history of economics (a subject for which, somewhat unfashionably, he was a tireless champion).

Peter Newman was a modest man and, to those who knew him, a great and liberal-minded man. He was a scholar and a bibliophile who worked tirelessly for the discipline simply because he regarded it as important to the betterment of people's lives. He held that economic research could sometimes contribute sharp and fresh understandings of many social problems; and he both practised and "preached" this opinion whenever he had the opportunity.

Apart from his own work, the three multi-volume New Palgrave dictionaries afford ample evidence of Newman's scholarship, encyclopaedic knowledge and wit. Their whole conception and execution testify to these characteristics of the man – as do his own (many) contributions to them, especially his great entry on F.Y. Edgeworth.

Until near the end of his life, Newman was still working – this time on the definitive edition of Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics for the Royal Economic Society. That project brought him great enjoyment. It might not be too much to hope that his labours on the Edgeworth volume were sufficiently far advanced at his death to allow us also, even yet, to enjoy their outcome.

Murray Milgate

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