Unassuming St. Louisan Wins Nobel Prize Economic Historian at Washington U. Shares Honor with Colleague in Chicago

Article excerpt

Douglass C. North, a Washington University professor of economic history, won the Nobel prize on Tuesday for his theory on the way that nations create wealth.

North shares the $845,000 prize with a longtime friend, Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago.

Fogel, also an economic historian, holds controversial theories on the economics of American slavery.

In discussing the prize Tuesday afternoon on the Washington University campus, North said: "It's the first time that economic historians have been honored with the Nobel prize."

North, 72, was recognized for his work over the past 25 years developing the theory that a nation's institutions - its judicial system and property rights in particular - largely determine whether its economy grows or withers.

Most contemporary economists ignore the role of institutions when examining development in industrialized nations and the Third World.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which administers the Nobel Memorial Prize In Economics, called North "one of the pioneers in `the new institutional economics.' "

The news of North's award came just before dawn at his home in the Central West End.

"I was in bed," North said. "The call came at 5:30 in the morning. It was the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

"Somebody I didn't know formally announced to me that Bob Fogel and I had won the prize."

North's honor quickly set off celebrations at Washington University, where colleagues gathered in his office throughout the morning.

Chancellor William Danforth said the award of the Nobel prize - the university's first since 1986 - "does make people realize Washington University is an attractive place to be."

Several faculty members privately speculated that the honor would lead to greater prominence for the economics department.

Despite the money and prestige that accompany the Nobel prize, North seemed to take himself less than seriously.

A Classroom Professor

At midmorning, he stopped taking phone calls so he could concentrate on his 11 a.m. class. During the class, one student vigorously argued with the new Nobel laureate.

"I tell all my classes . . . that the first essence I want of them is not to believe anything I say," North said afterward.

Later North pushed aside the idea that he should be a presidential adviser. "I don't believe economists should shoot off their mouths when they don't know what they are talking about," he said.

North's lack of pretension carries over to the classroom, one student said.

"He is really fun," said Hugo Eyzaguirre, a doctoral student in economics and a native of Peru. "He is very informal, friendly. You get to talk about whatever you think.

" I came to this university because of him. …