About

Mark Blaug was born Norbert Blauaug on 3 April, 1927 in The Hague, Netherlands, the middle of three brothers. His father, Berl (later Bernard) was born in what is now southern Poland and had Austro-Hungarian nationality; his mother (Sarah Toeman) was either born in England or came as a very young child. His father was a raincoat manufacturer who built up a successful business, initially living over the workshop on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam and later moving to South Amsterdam where Mark attended a progressive school. In January 1940, anticipating what was to follow, his mother took the two older boys to England to a Jewish boarding school, Whittingham College near Brighton and she then returned to the Netherlands. By this time, his father, who had been a Captain in the Austro-Hungarian army in the 1st world war was not eligible to enter the UK; a self-proclaimed pessimist, who had experienced anti-Semitism in his youth, Bernard arranged for the business to be managed by the Gentile manager and took Sarah and Maurice, the youngest child, by car to Nice, their favourite holiday location. He put his old mother into an old people’s home and warned all the other relatives to flee, but they did not and all perished after the German invasion in May 1940. Eventually the parents reached the USA and established themselves in New York, having changed their surname to Blaug.

Mark hated his boarding school and with his elder brother George was moved to family in London where he went to St John’s Wood Grammar School. They were very soon evacuated to Amersham where the boys attended Amersham College. Once the parents were settled in the USA, they sent for Mark and his brother and they crossed the Atlantic in a convoy on the SS Mount Pindus arriving in Maine in late 1941. In New York, Mark attended Peter Stuyvesant High School, graduating as Norbert Blaug with a science major in 1945 and then went to New York University. He failed his first year exams and was expelled for bad behaviour; by now he was a member of the New York Communist party and also had met Rose Lapone with whom he took off for California and admitted himself to the University of California Berkeley summer school in order to make up the credits he needed. He and Rose then returned to New York and married in 1947 (divorced in 1951) and Mark completed his BA at Queens College, graduating in 1950, now as Mark Blaug. Rose supported him financially, something he never forgot: they remained in touch until Rose died in August 2011 shortly before Mark.

Mark did his Masters’ degree at Columbia University, writing his thesis on monopolistic competition, and also his PhD at Columbia on the School of Ricardo, supervised by George Stigler. During this time, he had been teaching at Queens College and signed a petition which attracted the attention of the McCarthy Committee leading him to lose his job. In the wake of this, an SSRC-USA grant to study abroad materialized out of the blue and he went to London to do his research at the British Museum. The thesis was published in 1958 as Ricardian Economics. While in London, he met Brenda Ellis, who subsequently joined him in Newhaven Connecticut where they married and where Mark had a lectureship (later assistant professorship) at Yale. Their son, born in 1956, was named David Ricardo. The marriage broke down and Brenda returned to England with Ricardo; so he could keep in contact with his son, Mark obtained grants to study the Lancashire cotton industry with a visiting readership at University of Manchester and later went to Paris to research the French cotton industry, still on leave from Yale. He and Brenda divorced in 1961.

While at Yale, Mark had given lectures in the history of economic thought that resulted in his most eminent publication, Economic Theory in Retrospect, published in 1962. Nevertheless, in that year he was refused tenure at Yale and decided to move back to the UK. He was offered a Senior Lectureship in the economics of education at the Institute of Education, University of London where he remained as Reader, then Professor until 1984 (subsequently part-time and later as Emeritus). He then moved to London where he lived until 1988 when he moved with his third wife, Ruth Towse, to Tavistock in Devon, where he died in 2011. He and Ruth had met at the London School of Economics in 1966, married in 1969 and had a son, Tristan, in 1971.

Mark’s career in economics of education took off very quickly. He undertook a number of ‘missions’ on behalf of UNESCO, the ILO, World Bank and others and also was connected to the so-called Moser Unit at LSE, Claus Moser (Professor of Social Statistics) having been responsible for the statistical evidence for the Robbins Report into higher education. Mark published significant work theoretical and empirical work in the field as well as engaging in the political debate about student loans and other aspects of the finance of higher education in the UK as well as in developing countries. He spent a year (1969-70) in Thailand working with the Ministry of Education there. Nevertheless, he ultimately found the economics of education limited and his inaugural lecture as Professor of Economics of Education recorded his ‘jaundiced view’. He continued to work on the history of economic thought and attended conferences on the subject throughout and also taught classes for Professor Hla Myint’s course on history of economic thought. During this time he also developed an interest, and made quite a name for himself, in the economics of the arts, later known as cultural economics. His commitment to economics of education declined further when he was asked to take early retirement by the Institute of Education in 1984 and anyway, by then he had developed the second real passion of his intellectual life, the methodology of economics.

Early retirement was not the luxury for Mark that it was for some of his contemporaries: having arrived relatively late in the UK higher education system, his pension was not very high and he had to supplement it. Alan Peacock, whom Mark greatly admired as an economist and as a friend, invited him to a part-time professorship at what later became the University of Buckingham, then an experiment as the UK’s first private university, whose foundation Mark had supported. He taught courses in the history of economic thought and methodology of economics and spent a number of happy years doing so there.

Mark’s interest in methodology probably started in earnest during his sabbatical at University of Chicago in 1965, where he got to know Milton Friedman well (they lived in the same hotel – the Friedmans were having work done on their house). Mark remembered many of their conversations in detail: they disagreed on almost everything but as two good Jewish talkers, enjoyed the arguments. Karl Popper was at LSE during the time Mark was associated with it but they seem not to have met. However, Mark did meet Imre Lakatos and they became close friends until Imre died tragically early in 1974. Imre was the ideal friend for Mark – intensely intellectual, with an extraordinary personal history and just a bit crazy. But besides these influences, Mark also related methodology to his work both in the history of economic thought, including contemporary developments such as monetarism (or its revival) and to the economics of education. This set the course for all his later work.

The move to Devon was prompted by his experience of spending a year on the Dutch dunes while at NIAS (the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies), where he wrote a novel, Cliomania (that did not see the light of day); he realised how much he loved walking in the countryside. It also followed his operation for stomach cancer (total gastrectomy) from which he made a determined recovery, the chances of survival being poor at the time. He and Ruth decided to move out of London and in 1988 bought a barn on the edge of Dartmoor (which had cattle and straw in it at the time) and set about converting it to a habitable residence. By coincidence, they were put in touch with the economics department at University of Exeter and as a result both worked there for a number of years. In 1999, Ruth moved to Erasmus University Rotterdam and Mark was serendipitously offered a part-time professorship at University of Amsterdam, where the economics department was on the street where he had been to school as a child. There followed nine years of the final stage of Mark’s career in which he also worked at Erasmus University, where he was connected with EIPE, the Institute of Economics and Philosophy, which now has a Mark Blaug Prize for the best paper in their journal. He also had a brief spell in the business school there.

Mark and Ruth moved back to their Devon home in 2008, which was when Mark finally retired! He was ill for a year before he died and was cared for at home, where he died peacefully on November 18th, 2011 with Ruth, Ricardo and Tristan at his side.

There have been many appreciations and publications in honour of Mark’s life and work, some of which are listed below:

Special Issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics in honour of Mark

Anthony Brewer in The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought

Roger Backhouse in History of Political Economy

Richard Lipsey on the Royal Economic Society website

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