Leading economist, 50-year faculty member Johnson dies at 86
D. Gale Johnson, one of the world’s most eminent researchers of agricultural and development economics, and who helped build the University’s Department of Economics into a global powerhouse as its Chairman, died Sunday, April 13, in Amherst, Mass. He was 86.
In addition to his accomplished research career, Johnson has contributed greatly to the governance of the University during his 50 years at the University. “Over the past 50 years there has been no greater citizen of the University on all fronts: scholar, teacher, administrator, member of the Hyde Park community,” said Hugo Sonnenschein, President Emeritus and the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College.
“When D. Gale Johnson traveled in Asia, he was greeted by heads of state as ‘their teacher,’ the man who was the world’s foremost figure in agriculture policy and economic development,” Sonnenschein said. “This was a man of the greatest strength and the greatest character, whose work influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people and who never lost sight of the true purpose of economic analysis,” added Sonnenschein, who currently is also Chairman of the department.
Nobel laureate Gary Becker, University Professor in Economics, and a longtime colleague of Johnson’s, said: “He worked on important policy issues in both agricultural economics and development economics. He combined careful attention to data with a reliance on economic theory to gain insights into important real world problems.”
As a farm boy who grew up in Iowa, Johnson was inspired to pursue economics through his contact with Theodore Schultz, who went on to receive a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics while teaching at the University.
To prepare himself for a debate as a member of a Future Farmers of America team, Johnson wrote Schultz, then on the faculty of Iowa State College (now University), and received a letter and book in response. Johnson went on to study at Iowa State, where he received a Ph.D. in economics and joined Schultz at Chicago in 1944 after Schultz left Iowa State. The two worked together for nearly 50 years.
At the University, Johnson eventually became the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus as well as a distinguished administrator.
His research took him all over the world, and he was particularly astute as a student of agriculture in the former Soviet Union and in China. He was the author, co-author or editor of 22 books, including the recent Agricultural Policy and U.S.-Taiwan Trade (1993); Long-Term Agricultural Policies for Central Europe (1996); and Economies in Transition–Poland and Hungary (1997).
His work on American agriculture built a serious intellectual foundation in the field. For example, he examined farm income and how it was influenced by a wide variety of factors. His research showed, for instance, that improvements in productivity raised farm income despite drops in farm prices. His research explained that the welfare of farm families depends on the functioning of markets and not on arbitrary efforts to raise prices for farm products.
His research on developing nations provided keen insights as well. His work examined birth control efforts in China, for instance, and concluded that expanded use of social security and the elimination of land allocation according to family size would do more to limit population than would more severe policies.
He traveled abroad frequently and had students in China and elsewhere, many of whom pursued distinguished careers in academic or government work. Former students of his founded the China Center for Economic Research at Beijing University. Even during the past three years of his life, Johnson averaged five trips a year, said Sonnenschein, who, while serving as President of the University, traveled with Johnson to China and Taiwan.
“I remember President Lee of Taiwan running quite literally through me to embrace Professor Johnson as I led the University of Chicago delegation into the Presidential Palace, and this was followed by an account of their deep friendship and how Lee had wished to study with Johnson and Schultz in Chicago.”
Johnson became editor in 1985 of the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change, which focuses on the problems of emerging economies.
Johnson was Dean of the Social Sciences Division from 1960 to 1970, and he served twice as Chairman of Economics, from 1971 to 1975, and from 1980 to 1984. As chairman he helped recruit leading faculty to join the University, thus bolstering the department, which has produced more winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics than any other department in the world.
Johnson also served as Acting Director of the University Library from 1971 to 1972, and as Vice President and Dean of Faculties in 1975.
From 1975 to 1980, Johnson served as Provost. He helped found the Korean Studies Program in 1985, the same year he became Director of the Economics Program in the College, a position he held until 2002.
Johnson was acting director of the William Benton Fellowships Program in Broadcast Journalism from 1991 to 1992, and he was chairman of the program’s faculty advisory committee.
Johnson also has been a longtime member of the National Opinion Research Center’s board of trustees and served as vice president from 1960 to 1962, and as president for two terms, from 1962 to 1975, and from 1979 to 1985.
He also served for many years as president of the South East Chicago Commission, a citizens’ organization that works with residents and neighborhood groups to strengthen the Hyde Park-South Kenwood neighborhood as a stable, racially and economically integrated community.
Johnson was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1999 and has continued to teach and do research. He has received numerous awards, both from his profession and the University.
He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a frequent consultant to the World Bank, and an honorary professor at Beijing University.
In 2000, Johnson received the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He also was a recipient of the 1998 Norman Maclean Faculty Award, which recognizes emeritus or senior faculty members who have made outstanding contributions to student life at the University.
His wife, Helen Wallace Johnson, died in 1990.
He is survived by a daughter, Kay Ann Johnson, Amherst, Mass.; a son, David, Beaver Springs, Penn.; and four grandchildren.