press enter after type

Chicago. Chester Wright recounts J. Laurence Laughlin to Alfred Bornmann in 1939



In 1939 a NYU graduate student, Alfred H. Bornemann, wrote to the University of Chicago economic historian Chester W. Wright requesting any of the latter’s personal memories of the first head of the Chicago Department of Political Economy, J. Laurence Laughlin. Bornemann’s letter and Wright’ response are transcribed below. Results from Bornemann’s project were published in 1940 as J. Laurence Laughlin: Chapters in the Career of an Economist. I have added Bornemann’s AEA membership data from 1948 and his New York Times obituary to round out the post.

Reading Wright’s letter it is easy to convince oneself that any oral history interview is more likely to extract something from a witness than is an open-ended request for a written statement. Still, an artifact is an artifact and Wright’s response is now entered into the digital record.


1948 Listing in the AEA Membership Roll

BORNEMANN, Alfred H., 1618 Jefferson Ave., Brooklyn 27, N. Y. (1939). Long Island Univ., teach., res.; b. 1908; B.A., 1933, M.A., 1937, Ph.D., 1941, New York. Fields 7 [Money and Banking; Short-term Credit; Consumer Finance], 6 [Business Fluctuations].

Source:   “Alphabetical List of Members (as of June 15, 1948).” The American Economic Review 39, no. 1 (1949): 1-208. .p. 20.


Alfred Bornemann, 82, Economist and Author
New York Times Obituary of May 3, 1991

Alfred H. Bornemann, an economist who taught at several colleges and who wrote extensively on economics, died on Friday at his home in Englewood, N.J. He was 82 years old.

He died of liver and colon cancer, his family said.

Dr. Bornemann was a professor at Norwich University and chairman of its department of economics and businness administration from 1951 to 1958. He taught at C. W. Post College of Long Island University from 1960 to 1966 and at Hunter and Kingsborough Colleges of the City University of New York from 1967 to 1974.

He wrote, among other books, “Fundamentals of Industrial Management,” published in 1963; “Essentials of Purchasing” (1974) and “Fifty Years of Ideology: A Selective Survey of Academic Economics” (1981).

Dr. Bornemann was born in Queens and received bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from New York University. He was an accountant with Cities Service and with the American Water Works and Electric Company before beginning his teaching career at N.Y.U. in 1940.

He is survived by his wife, the former Bertha Kohl; a son, Alfred R., of Bayonne, N.J., and a brother, Edwin, of Liberty, N.Y.

Source: New York Times Obituaries, May 3, 1991.


Bornemann’s book and doctoral thesis about J. Laurence Laughlin

Alfred Bornemann. J. Laurence Laughlin: Chapters in the Career of an Economist. Introduction by Leon C. Marshall. (Washington,: American Council on Public Affairs,1940).

Chief sources: Agatha Laughlin’s recollections of her father; Letters from numerous colleagues and students; Laughlin papers in the University of Chicago and in the Library of Congress. His 300 odd books and articles published, 1876-1933.

Source: FRASER. Committee on the History of the Federal Reserve System. Biographies, Memoirs, Personal Reminiscences: American: U. Economists (Date 1956).

Downloadable doctoral thesis

Bornemann’s 1940 NYU PhD thesis (degree awarded in 1941) on J. Laurence Laughlin. 420 typewritten leaves (LOC: LD3907/.G7/1941/.B6). Downloadable pdf copy of the dissertation for libraries with access to ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global!


Handwritten letter from Alfred Borneman to Chester W. Wright requesting personal observations of J. L. Laughlin and the Department of Political Economy of the University of Chicago

1618 Jefferson Ave.,
Brooklyn, NY.
Jan 12, 1939.

Professor C. W. Wright,
University of Chicago,
Chicago, Illinois.

Dear Professor Wright,

I am writing a thesis on J. Laurence Laughlin, as I believe Professor Mayer has already told you. What I am trying to do, among other things, is to write a chapter on “Faculty, Fellows and Students” in Laughlin’s Department at Chicago. In this chapter, I hope to tell as much as I can about the background in the Department and about the men connected with it.

As I understand it, you were appointed instructor in 1907, assistant professor in 1910, and associate professor in 1913. Can you tell me anything of interest in connection with your original appointment, that is, where you were teaching and where you got the Ph.D.? Marshall, I think, was also appointed in 1907, but even though he did not have the Ph.D. he was made a professor in 1911. Can you suggest the reason for his more rapid advancement?

On the other hand, I may suggest that apparently you and Marshall and Field were the first to be advanced so rapidly. In any event you seem to have been advanced more rapidly than Veblen and Hoxie. It is possible that in the early days he had a different attitude.

Of course there is so much which you experience under Laughlin that would be of value to me to know about that I scarcely know how to ask you anything. Alvin Johnson has suggested that Laughlin was a neurotic and he would explain him in psychological terms, which, of course, I shall not do. But his characterization may suggest some thoughts to your mind. Moulton, incidentally, says Johnson could never have known Laughlin well enough to arrive at his conclusion, because Laughlin had few intimate friends.

I do not know, of course, how much interest you had in Laughlin’s public work or his theories, so that what I am asking you largely concerns his Department. If you care to give me any observations with respect to these two phases, however, I should naturally greatly appreciate your doing so.

But I believe you could give me most invaluable information by your recollections of your years under Laughlin and how he saw the Department, as well as possibly some of the background.

For anything which you can find the time to tell me I shall be grateful.

Cordially yours,

Alfred Borneman


Carbon copy of Chester W. Wright’s reply to Alfred Borneman

February 27, 1939

Mr. Alfred Borneman
1618 Jefferson Avenue
Brooklyn, New York

My dear Mr. Borneman:

I am sorry to have been so long in replying to your inquiry, but have been very rushed the last few weeks and assumed there was no need for an immediate answer.

I presume Professor Laughlin’s attention was called to me by the staff at Harvard as it seems to have been his policy to make inquiries there when he had positions to be filled. I received my Ph.D. degree at Harvard in 1906 and during the following year taught at Cornell University. It was while I was there that I received a request from Professor Laughlin to meet him for an interview in Philadelphia, following which he offered me the appointment at Chicago which I decided to accept.

Professor Marshall came to Chicago at the same time. As I recollect, he had been teaching at Ohio Wesleyan for several years after completing two or three years of graduate work at Harvard, though he did not remain there to write a thesis and get his Ph.D. degree. Since he was recognized as an excellent teacher and very competent in administrative work, the fact that he did not have a Ph.D. degree was never considered an obstacle to his promotion any more that in the case of J. A. Field, who only held a Bachelor’s degree. I presume the explanation for the more rapid advancement of the men who came to the Department at Chicago about this time is that they proved to be more of the type in whom Laughlin had confidence. President Judson, I believe, had unusual confidence in Laughlin, so the latter was able to get his recommendations approved.

Of the men already in the Department when I came, Cummings and Hill were not conspicuous successes either as teachers or productive scholars. I suspect there was no pressure either to promote them or to keep them when they had chances to go elsewhere. Just why Davenport left, I never knew. Hoxie was eventually made a full professor on the strength of his recognized success as a teacher and a student of labor problems despite views on these problems which must have seemed rather questionable to one of Laughlin’s conservatism.

Professor Laughlin was very much a gentleman of the old school and placed considerable emphasis on what he called “a sense of form.” Possibly the fact that he thought the men coming into the Department about my time and later had more of this sense of form may have been a factor in their advancement. It has never occurred to me that Laughlin was of the neurotic type, though Hoxie was.

As Laughlin’s theoretical and public work was entirely outside of my field of special interest, I cannot very profitably discuss it.

In his conduct of the Department, I had no feeling that he was autocratic or unreasonable. My recollection is that most matters of general interest were discussed among the members of the Department and commonly acted upon as decided by the group. I suspect that this may have been more generally the case after about the time I came to the Department here than it had been formerly, but I have no definite knowledge on this point.

Sincerely yours,

Chester W. Wright


Source: University of Chicago Archives. Department of Economics, Records. Box 41, Folder 12.

Image Source:  Dr. Alfred Bornemann in C. W. Post College Yearbook, 1966.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier

4 thoughts on “Chicago. Chester Wright recounts J. Laurence Laughlin to Alfred Bornmann in 1939

  1. What does Wright mean when he says that Laughlin emphasized “a sense of form”? Is this a way of thought?

    1. That is an excellent question. “Very much a gentleman of the old school” suggests to me that the “sense of form” refers to being well-mannered and showing respect where respect is due according to existing social norms. There is a sense here of being conservative (“old school”) but the emphasis appears to me on being correct in one’s dealings with others, never rude nor giving offense. In short, Laughlin would not have survived ten minutes in a University of Chicago economics seminar of the past several decades if this characterization is what Wright meant.

      1. The fact that we’ve largely abandoned this “sense of form” seems to imply that this method of interaction is less efficient for generating new scholarship. Do you think any aspects of the “old form” could help departments operate better today? I assume it rewards seniority/experience over innovation.

        1. Perhaps there is an evolutionary theory to explain coexisting mixed scientific styles, call them Sparta and Athens perhaps. Fighting bad science and fostering good science might call for a mixture. Perhaps what Laughlin had in mind was keeping his ivory tower “eccentric light”, Henry Moore; Thorstein Veblen; Robert Hoxie(?); Abba Lerner might be the sort of folks Laughlin would not want to dominate a department.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *