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Columbia. Memorial Minute for Wesley Clair Mitchell, 1949


Memorial minutes entered into a faculty’s record have the virtue of being brief and typically are written by someone who has had a close personal/professional relationship with the subject as seen in the following memorial minute delivered by Wesley Clair Mitchell’s student and later colleague, Frederick C. Mills.

The dual memoir Two Lives–The Story of Wesley Clair Mitchell and Myself, written by Mitchell’s wife Lucy Sprague Mitchell is available at and provides much detail, e.g. an eight page autobiographical letter written by Mitchell in 1911.


Memorial Minute read by Professor F. C. Mills
February 18, 1949

Wesley Clair Mitchell, Professor Emeritus of Economics, died in New York City on October 29, 1948. In his death the world lost one of the great scholars of our generation and the members of this Faculty lost a distinguished colleague and a cherished friend.

Wesley Mitchell was born in Rushville, Illinois, on August 5, 1874, the son of a country doctor who had won the rank of Brevet Colonel as a Civil War surgeon. The family was of New England stock, and although a middle-western boyhood and later adult years in California and New York left their impress on Mitchell, something of the New England strain was always discernible in the pattern of his thought and life.

Mitchell’s student days, undergraduate and graduate, were spent at the University of Chicago, with a one-year interim period at Halle and Vienna. The influence of the German and Austrian residence was slight; Mitchell was a product of American university training in the period of vigorous growth that came at the turn of the century. His outstanding qualities as an economist were distinctive of ways of thought and study that were largely indigenous to this country. Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, J. Laurence Laughlin in their several ways deeply affected Mitchell’s thinking and his way of conceiving of the problems of society.

Following a year at the Census Bureau and a short term as instructor at the University of Chicago, Mitchell moved in 1902 to the University of California, at Berkeley, to begin a decade of fruitful work and of steady personal growth. His tools of research were sharpened and his mastery of them perfected. The brilliant studies of the greenback period, in which the pattern of his scholarly work was first defined, were extended. The massive monograph on Business Cycles, one of the great products of scholarship in the social sciences, was here completed. But beyond these solid contributions to economic thought and method this was a rich period inMitchell’s life, to which he always looked back as something of a personal golden age. A young man intellectually somewhat aloof and inclined toward austerity mellowed in the sunshine of the west and in the easy, pleasant companionships of the young University. He took to the Sierras avidly, relishing the free ways, the free language and the physical release to be found in mountain climbing. A companion of those days says that Wesley’s inhibitions were peeled off like the layers of an onion as successive altitude levels were passed. He found a wife, too, in the west; when he left California in 1912 he took with him the Dean of Women of the University.

Wesley Mitchell’s service at Columbia began in 1913 and extended to the date of his retirement in 1944, except for a three-year term at the New School for Social Research. Indeed, his Columbia connection extended, properly, to the day of his death, for there was no time when we did not consider him one of us, or when he did not so regard himself. Mitchell’s reputation had been established by the time he came to Columbia; he had reached full scholarly maturity. Yet his growth continued and his accomplishments multiplied. A steady (but not a voluminous) flow of papers, reviews, addresses and more extensive studies came from his pen. Into each, whether brief or extended, went care in the construction of a logical and orderly argument, skill in the marshaling of evidence, and objectivity in the use of that evidence. Each, too, was in exposition a work of craftsmanship by a man whose ear was extraordinarily sensitive to the rhythms of our language and whose mind was alert to shades of meaning and subtleties of expression.

There was also an almost uninterrupted series of public and professional services and of accumulating honors. He was Chief of the Price Section of the War Industries Board during the first World War, chairman of the President’s Committee on Recent Social Trends, a member of the National Planning Board, the National Resources Board, and the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, and chairman of the Committee on the Cost of Living when that burning issue threatened to check the steady production of goods during the second World War. There was the launching in 1920 and the directing for a quarter of a century of a new instrument for the advancement of knowledge—the National Bureau of Economic Research. Over a long stretch of years he helped to break down the barriers between the social sciences and to unify their activities in the Social Science Research Council. He was one of those who founded and shaped the New School for Social Research. Counsel and guidance were given over many years to the Bureau of Educational Experiments. He was called upon to direct the affairs of professional societies, serving as President of the American Economic Association, the American Statistical Association, the Econometric Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There were elections to learned societies at home and abroad. Honorary degrees came from Oxford, the University of Paris, and from major universities in this country. These were rich honors and they were not unwelcome; but he remained to the day of his death a modest scholar, who would both gladly learn and gladly teach.

It was as teacher and scholar that Mitchell’s greatest services were rendered to Columbia, and it was in these roles that he was best known to us of this Faculty. Mitchell possessed in high degree the qualities of a good teacher. There was insight in his analyses; there was a freshness of view that he never lost; there was lucidity of thought and expression; there was a sense of sharing with the student the task of inquiry. Above all, perhaps, was the sense of integrity. Here was a man without affectation, without pretense, who honestly sought understanding.

The specific contributions that Mitchell made to economics will be duly appraised by his colleagues in that profession. As members of a political science faculty, however, it is proper for us to recognize the service of Mitchell in breaking economics out of the tight formalism of the tradition that prevailed when he came to the subject. He was profoundly unhappy about economics as a branch of logic, dealing with the interaction of atoms in the form of human reasoning machines, subjecting itself only to tests of logical consistency, almost indifferent to the relevance of its principles to complex and constantly changing reality. Mitchell himself was not unskilled in the spinning of deductive arguments, but he was keenly aware of the dangers of self-delusion in unchecked rationalism. His bent was empirical; his emphasis in research was on the constant checking of reason against observation. First in the monetary field, later in the study of prices, of business cycles, and of national income, he developed and refined methods of quantitative analysis and stimulated a movement that has deeply affected the character of economic research and the content of economic thought the world over. But Mitchell’s concern was never with method as method. Man was at the center. Economics was to him on of the sciences of human behavior. And the human being with whose actions he was concerned was a complex creature whose motives could not be reduced to the reasoned balancing of satisfactions against pains or of prospective gains against prospective losses. He stressed the role in economics of institutions — of money, of the industrial system — which man had shaped and which in turn were shaping him; in so doing he helped to turn many younger economists to the study of a neglected phase of economic life. These various aspects of Mitchell’s thought are developed in treatises and shorter papers published over a period of fifty years. They are outstandingly revealed in the series of books on business cycles that are Mitchell’s greatest substantive contribution to economics.

Some of the personal qualities of Wesley Mitchell have been suggested in this brief account of his work. But there was much more than this. He was a lover of poetry whose mind was stocked with verse. He was a connoisseur of mystery stories who could warmly resent the moral betrayal of the reader when the author played unfairly with him. He was a craftsman, skilled in the fine art of woodwork. He was tenacious and unremitting in seeking principles of order in human affairs, yet free from dogmatism and open to criticism and advice from his youngest associates. He was a kindly and generous man, a source of continuing and friendly inspiration to students and colleagues alike. In his life’s work Mitchell served the human race. In his own being he helped to give dignity to that race.


Source: Memorial Minute on Professor Wesley C. Mitchell read by Professor F. C. Mills at the meeting of Faculty of Political Science of February 18, 1949. Appended to the Minutes of the Faculty Meeting.

Image Source:Foundation for the Study of Cycles Website  .

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier