Obituary: Professor David Champernowne

By F. A. Cowell | The Independent (London, England), August 26, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor David Champernowne

F. A. Cowell, The Independent (London, England)

IT WAS fortunate for the economics profession that the schoolboy David Champernowne, a keen and able mathematician, was advised to read something in the school library to broaden his horizons: he chose Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics. It was the beginning of a distinguished career in academic economics and statistics. He held Chairs at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, was director of the Oxford Institute of Statistics and co- editor of the Economic Journal. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1970.

It was fortunate for me that Champernowne took an interest in my work early in my career. His proposal to join with him in collaborative research on income distribution eventually led to a substantial book, Economic Inequality and Income Distribution (1998) that incorporates much of his later thinking about the forces driving income and wealth inequality in modern economies. Champernowne took his time over this and the many hours of meetings with him over several years provided the opportunity to get to know something of his remarkable life.

David Gawen Champernowne was born in 1912 into an Oxford academic family, went to school at Winchester College and from there as a scholar to King's College, Cambridge. While still an undergraduate he published his first paper (on "normal numbers"). Early contact with Dennis Robertson confirmed his previous interest in economics, and he was advised by J.M. Keynes to abandon thoughts of becoming an actuary and switch to the Economics Tripos by taking his Part II Mathematics in one year rather than the normal two. He obtained Firsts throughout in both subjects.

His academic career spanned the London School of Economics (1936- 38), Oxford (1945-59) and Cambridge (1938-40 and 1959-78). During the Second World War he served with F.A. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell) as Assistant in the Prime Minister's Statistical Section (1940-41) and worked with John Jewkes at the Ministry of Aircraft Production's Department of Statistics and Programming.

Champernowne's customary air of studied absent-mindedness (during the termly undergraduate meetings with him as Director of Studies in Economics in Trinity College, Cambridge, he would have a note on his desk, "Please remind me from time to time who you are") typically concealed a quick and enquiring mind that was swift to debunk nonsense by students and fellow academics who should have known better. But the sharp intellect would always be softened by a genuine and genial kindness.

He proved to be a genuine pioneer both in economic theory and statistics. His King's fellowship dissertation (submitted in 1936, but published 37 years later, as Distribution of Income Between Persons) laid the foundations for the application of stochastic process models to the analysis of income distributions. His pre-war interest in Frank Ramsey's theory of probability led on to work at Oxford on the application of Bayesian analysis to autoregressive series (at a time when the Bayesian approach was decidedly unfashionable), and culminated in his major trilogy Uncertainty and Estimation in Economics (1969).

In addition to his own output he acted as midwife to a number of important theoretical contributions.

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