University of Rochester

Rochester Review
November–December 2010
Vol. 73, No. 2

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TRIBUTEEconomics Pioneer Lionel McKenzie: ‘Scholar’s Scholar’
mckenzieLEGACY: “Every economics graduate student” learns McKenzie’s proof of what economists call “general equilibrium,” say colleagues and contemporaries (Photo: University Communications)

Lionel McKenzie, a professor of economics at Rochester since 1957 and most recently the Wilson Professor Emeritus of Economics, died in October at age 91.

“He was one of the great leaders in the field of economics in the ’50s, ’60s, and on into the ’70s,” says Jerry Green ’67, ’70 (PhD), a professor of economics at Harvard and one of McKenzie’s PhD students at Rochester. “He was a pioneer in general equilibrium theory, demand theory, and welfare measurement, and the theory of economic growth—all central topics in economic theory in those days.”

McKenzie’s contributions were to “high mathematical theory—the nuts and bolts of what economists learn—the core of their craft,” says E. Roy Weintraub, a professor of economics at Duke who has written a retrospective on McKenzie’s work. “He was the first to provide the now most widely employed proof for how economies, through competitive pricing, find a state in which the amount of every good supplied is equal to the demand, a condition economists call general equilibrium,” says Weintraub. "Every economics graduate student today has to learn that proof."

McKenzie was the founder of the University’s doctoral program in economics, a program he launched in 1957 when he joined the economics department. By 1995, the program was ranked among the top 10 in the country by the National Research Council.

“He had a vision for the department,” says Ronald Jones, the Xerox Professor of Economics at Rochester and McKenzie’s first hire to the fledgling program. “He wanted to bring quantitative and theoretical approaches to areas like economic history and labor economics, where they had yet to be applied.”

Many of McKenzie’s doctoral students hailed from Japan, where his influence is celebrated. He’s known as “the father of Japanese mathematical economists,” according to the Kyoto Newspaper, and he was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, a governmental honor rarely given to American professors. A replica of his personal office, complete with original copies of his books, photographs, papers, and DVDs, is preserved at Kyoto University, where scholars from around the world can sift through the 2,200-piece collection.

McKenzie “was a wonderful advisor primarily by his example,” says Green. “He was a scholar’s scholar. He taught us that if you stick with a problem, and you work hard, eventually you’ll get the answer.”

—Susan Hagen

Hagen writes about the social sciences for University Communications.