The University of Chicago News Office
April 15, 2003 Press Contact: Julia Morse
(773) 702-8359

D. Gale Johnson, Economist, 1916 – 2003

Print-quality photo
D. Gale Johnson, 1991

D. Gale Johnson, one of the world’s most eminent researchers of agricultural and development economics, who helped build the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics into a global powerhouse as department Chairman, died April 13 in Amherst, Mass. He was 86.

“When D. Gale Johnson traveled in Asia, he was greeted by heads of state as ‘their teacher’ the man who was the world’s foremost figure in agriculture policy and economic development,” said Hugo Sonnenschein, President Emeritus and the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago. “This was a man of the greatest strength and the greatest character, whose work influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people and who never lost sight of the true purpose of economic analysis,” added Sonnenschein, who is currently chair of the department.

Nobel laureate Gary Becker, University Professor in Economics at Chicago, and a longtime colleague of Johnson’s, said, “He worked on important policy issues in both agricultural economics and development economics. He combined careful attention to data with a reliance on economic theory to gain insights into important real world problems.”

As a farm boy who grew up in Iowa, Johnson was inspired to pursue economics through his contact with Theodore Schultz, who went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Economics while teaching at the University of Chicago.

To prepare himself for a debate as a member of a Future Farmers of America team, Johnson wrote Schultz, then on the faculty of Iowa State College (now University), and received a letter and book in response. Johnson went on to study at Iowa State, where he received a Ph.D. in Economics and joined Schultz at the University of Chicago in 1944 after Schultz left Iowa State. The two worked together for nearly 50 years.

At the University of Chicago, Johnson eventually became the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University as well as a distinguished administrator.

His research took him all over the world, and he was particularly astute as a student of agriculture in the former Soviet Union and in China. He was the author, co-author or editor of 22 books, including the recent Agricultural Policy and U.S.-Taiwan Trade (1993); Long-Term Agricultural Policies for Central Europe (1996); and Economies in Transition–Poland and Hungary (1997).

His work on American agriculture provided a serious intellectual understanding to the field. He examined farm income and how it was influenced by a wide variety of factors. His research showed, for instance, that improvements in productivity raised farm income despite drops in farm prices. His research explained that the welfare of farm families depends on the functioning of markets and not on arbitrary efforts to raise prices for farm products.

His research on developing nations provided keen insights as well. His work examined birth control efforts in China, for instance, and concluded that expanded use of social security and the elimination of land allocation according to family size would do more to limit population than more severe policies toward limiting population growth.

He traveled abroad frequently and had students in China and elsewhere, many of whom pursued distinguished careers in academic or government work. Former students of Johnson founded the China Center for Economic Research at Beijing University. Even during the past three years of his life, Johnson averaged five trips a year, said Sonnenschein, who, while serving as President of the University of Chicago, traveled with Johnson to China and Taiwan. “I remember President Lee (Taiwan) running quite literally through me to embrace Professor Johnson as I led the University of Chicago delegation into the Presidential Palace, and this was followed by an account of their deep friendship and how Lee had wished to study with Johnson and Schultz in Chicago.”

Johnson became editor in 1985 of the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change, which features serious scholarship on the problems of emerging economics.

In addition to his accomplished research career, Johnson has contributed greatly to the governance of the University of Chicago during his 50 years as a faculty member. “Over the past fifty years there has been no greater citizen of the University on all fronts: scholar, teacher, administrator, member of the Hyde Park community,” Sonnenschein said.

Johnson was Dean of the Social Sciences Division from 1960 to 1970, and he served twice as Chairman of Economics, from 1971 to 1975, and from 1980 to 1984. As chairman he helped recruit leading faculty to join the University, thus bolstering the department ,which has produced more Nobel Prize winners in economics than any other economics department in the world.

Johnson also served as Acting Director of the University Library from 1971 to 1972, and as Vice President and Dean of Faculties in 1975. From 1975 to 1980, Johnson was Provost. He helped found the Korean Studies Program in 1985, the same year that he became Director of the Economics Program in the College, a position he held until 2002.

Johnson was acting director of the William Benton Fellowships Program in Broadcast Journalism from 1991 to 1992, and he was chairman of the program’s faculty advisory committee.

Johnson also has been a longtime member of the National Opinion Research Center’s board of trustees. He served as vice president of that board from 1960 to 1962, and as president for two terms, from 1962 to 1975 and from 1979 to 1985.

He also served for many years as president of the South East Chicago Commission, a citizens’ organization that works with residents and neighborhood groups to strengthen the Hyde Park-South Kenwood neighborhood as a stable, racially and economically integrated community.

Johnson was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1999, and has continued to teach and do research. He has received numerous awards, both from his profession and from the University.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a frequent consultant to the World Bank, and an honorary professor at Beijing University.

In 2000, he received the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the University. He was also the recipient in 1998 of a Norman Maclean Faculty award, which recognizes emeritus or senior faculty members who have made outstanding contributions to student life at the University.

Johnson’s wife, Helen Wallace Johnson, died in 1990. He is survived by a daughter, Kay Ann Johnson, of Amherst, Massachusetts; a son, David, of Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania; and four grandchildren.
Last modified at 02:15 PM CST on Wednesday, April 16, 2003.

University of Chicago News Office
5801 South Ellis Avenue - Room 200
Chicago, Illinois 60637-1473
(773) 702-8360
Fax: (773) 702-8324
Contact Us