In Memoriam: Yale Economist William N. Parker

Funeral services for William N. Parker, emeritus professor of economics and American Studies at Yale University, were held in Battell Chapel at Yale on May 5.

Funeral services for William N. Parker, emeritus professor of economics and American Studies at Yale University, were held in Battell Chapel at Yale on May 5.

Professor Parker died on April 29. He was the Phillip G. Bartlett Professor Emeritus of Economics and professor emeritus of American Studies.

An outstanding scholar, writer and teacher of economic history, during his long career Professor Parker served as president of both the Economic History Association and the Agricultural History Association. His many awards and honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986 and the Economic History Association’s Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 1995. He wrote and edited many articles, chapters and books. He retired from Yale in 1989, but remained active in his field.

William Parker was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1919. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1939 from Harvard College with a major in English. A National Scholar, he graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He then began graduate studies in economics at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in 1941.

World War II interrupted his studies. He left for Washington in the summer of 1941 to serve in the mobilization effort with the Office of Production Management. He then served in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, 1941 to 1943. From 1943 to 1945, he was an economic analyst in the Office of Strategic Services in Europe, rising to the rank of Major. He and his college classmate, Richard Ruggles, were responsible for estimating the German production of tanks and trucks based on an analysis of the serial numbers of captured German equipment. (Years later, both he and Ruggles came to Yale, where they taught in the same department for 27 years.)

When the war ended, Parker worked as an economist for the U.S. Senate Committee on Atomic Energy, and then as an economist in the State Department’s Division of Research for Europe. After two years of research in France and Germany, he was awarded the Ph.D. in 1951 from Harvard. He taught at Williams College and the University of North Carolina before joining the Yale faculty in 1963.

Professor Parker’s work in economic history spans the emergence and development of modern capitalist institutions in Europe and the United States. He wrote about agrarian transformation, changes in the technology and organization of manufacturing, the geographical extension of markets and patterns of regional development.

Among the first in his field to make systematic use of quantitative data and statistical methods, Professor Parker compiled and analyzed data from 19th century census manuscripts into a landmark study of inter-regional trade. As editor of the Journal of Economic History in the 1960s, he presided over the flowering of quantitative research in economic history. Always the skeptical pioneer, he also emphasized the importance of the social, political and cultural context of economic research.

When a group of his former students published a festschrift in his honor in 1984 (“Technique, Spirit and Form in the Making of the Modern Economies,” edited by Gary Saxonhouse and Gavin Wright), they noted that “No other economic historian has so many admirers and well-wishers.”

“Bill’s grasp of the particular, rather than his quest for the general, made him not only a great historian, but also a storyteller, a writer, a poet and an astute observer of people,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin at the funeral. “It is well known that Bill was the most productive of mentors. His students occupy chairs in economic history at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Northwestern. But his influence as a teacher and counselor extends far beyond economic history. In his 13 years as Director of Graduate Studies in Economics at Yale, he touched hundreds of lives, exuding warmth and extending kindness to every student while privately relishing their idiosyncrasies.”

“He was a beloved teacher, respected and loved by students and colleagues,” said Merton Peck, the Thomas Dewitt Cuyler Professor of Economics at Yale. “He was noted for his kindness, and also for the breadth and depth of his learning.”

Professor Parker is survived by his wife, Yvonne; son, Jarrett; daughter, Victoria; and several grandchildren.

Yale University and the Parker family have established the William N. Parker Scholarship Fund for a Yale graduate student in economics. Contributions can be sent to:

William N. Parker Scholarship Fund
c/o Office of the President
Yale University
P.O. Box 208229
New Haven, CT 06520

Excerpts from an autobiographical essay by William N. Parker:

Where will it all end? Writers of discourses such as this lack a sense of completion if they fail to end their books with a note of fashionable pessimism. After all, it is a lazy scholar’s “out” to predict an end to history, since then one is under no obligation to go on with the chronicle. But professors who teach students see society in its most hopeful, reproductive phase. It is not uncommon for those, in their heart of hearts, to fantasize a vision of civilizations stretching as far ahead into the future as they have back into the past, and continuing like those past civilizations to reel erratically and convulsively down the corridors of Time. On such a moving panorama of civilizations, they often discern, too, figures of intellectuals, continuing to chase after their societies, a sheaf of rattling papers in hand, as one chases after a busy department chairman, trying to get in a word as he or she rushes off, late for a meeting.

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