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Influential Development Economist

Gerald M. Meier ’47

Gerald M. Meier ’47, a leading development economist and author of more than 34 books, died June 21, 2011, in Stanford, California, from complications related to a brain tumor.

Jerry maintained a long preoccupation with how the discipline of economics could be used to free people from poverty. "An economist is both a trustee of the poor and a guardian of rationality," he once wrote. "As trustee for the poor, the economist respects the values of altruism and economic justice. As guardian of rationality, the economist respects self-interest and efficiency. But does not the future course of development depend in large part on the capacity to combine the seemingly incompatible values of the trustee and the guardian? Can the professional developer combine a warm heart with a cool head?"

Jerry was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1923 and visited Reed for the first time with his high school debating team. What he experienced at the college influenced his decision to apply for admission. “In retrospect, the first two years at Reed provided the best education of my life.” He served as meteorologist in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to Reed, graduating with honors in social science.

In 1948, he won a Rhodes scholarship and earned a BLitt in economics from Oxford. He then completed a PhD in economics from Harvard. Jerry received a handwritten letter from Emile Despres—one of the world’s foremost specialists in international economics and economic development and father of Charles Despres ’67—offering him a teaching position at Williams College. “It was a molding influence on my life to be with him,” Jerry said. He left Williams to teach at Wesleyan, then rejoined Despres at Stanford 15 years later.

During his career at Stanford, he taught business and economics at the Graduate School of Business until surgery and treatment for cancer in 2003. He specialized in the study of the economies of developing nations, and was credited with inspiring generations of students. He conveyed the discipline of economic reasoning by “posing large questions” and using the Socratic method.

“I question students vigorously. I want them to appreciate the full power of the subject. This sometimes leaves them unsettled. Students don’t like indeterminacy in answers. But I think that any subject worth studying should have some element of mystery and some surprises.”

Jerry was the first holder of the Konosuke Matsushita Professorship of International Economics and Policy Analysis (established in 1985). During his career, he also was recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Brookings Research Fellowship, and the Russell Sage Foundation residency in law and social science at Yale. His text, Leading Issues in Economic Development (1964), is now in its eighth edition, and he served as general editor of the Economic Development Series, published by Oxford University Press. He also served as a consultant to the World Bank, the National Science Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Asian Development Bank, and SRI International.

The Gerald M. Meier Award for Distinction in Economics, an annual prize to honor excellence in undergraduate economics, has been established at Reed and at University College, Oxford University. His family is creating similar awards at Stanford and Wesleyan. Survivors include his wife, Gilda Slote Meier; four sons; and six grandchildren.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2011

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