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Harvard. Memorial Minute for Agricultural Economist, J. D. Black, 1960



John Kenneth Galbraith was the chairman of a committee commissioned to write a faculty minute in honor of John D. Black (1883-1960) who taught courses in the economics of agriculture at Harvard from 1927 through 1959. Anyone familiar with Galbraithian prose can see that this minute was overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, the work of Galbraith. I do not think it an exaggeration to see in Galbraith’s praise of this or that aspect of Black’s career and scholarly style a projection of Galbraith’s own creed for academic life. Admiration, gratitude (Black pushed hard to get Galbraith promoted to a full professorship at Harvard), and affection all shine through this memorial minute, a genuine positive outlier in the art of the obituary.

Willard W. Cochrane wrote a profile “Remembering John D. Black” that was published in Choices (Magazine published by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association in the 1st Quarter 1989 issue) pp. 31-32.



At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on October 18, 1960, the following minutes were placed upon the records.


John D. Black, Henry Lee Professor of Economics, was the nation’s leading student of the economics of agriculture, and, to a greater extent than any other man, he gave the modern dimension and form to this branch of economics. His books, monographs, and papers were more widely and attentively read than those of any other scholar in the field; he was a premier source of ideas and a leader in research; his students have held and still hold a large proportion of the professorships in this subject; they have been equally influential in the United States Department of Agriculture and influential also in the colleges and departments of agriculture in foreign countries; and Black himself had a marked influence on the agricultural legislation passed in 1933 and thereafter. The price paid for milk in this community is set in accordance with a complex formula devised by Black. Not the least of his achievements was to make Harvard, an institution with no very intimate ties to farming, a major center during his lifetime of agricultural research and instruction.

Black’s first interest in life was as a teacher of advanced students — students who would find their career in one or another branches of his subject. His teaching had little style; preparation was at best an afterthought. But his students soon came to realize that they were, incomparably, the most important people in his life. They could count, literally, on his unlimited time and his impersonal but equally unlimited affection. And they discovered that beneath his formless lecturing were solid theoretical premises, a strong scientific attitude, and a profound contempt for anything suggestive of cant or pretense. He was immensely tolerant of students of average ability and was content if they became, in his hands, a little better than average. But he rejoiced in his good students and saw in all their achievements his own. Black’s students were his students for life. He knew them all by name; he expected to be consulted when they changed jobs; and he liked to be informed on their personal life. He was deeply concerned with the quality of instruction in agricultural economics not alone at Harvard but throughout the country. High level instruction he identified, not inaccurately, with this own students. So for many years he carried with him a small black book containing a list of former students and in his mind a list of college and university departments where he felt his influence could be enhanced. A vacancy in any of these institutions led promptly to a recommendation of a man who could be counted upon to extend what he did not hesitate to call “the Black point of view.”

Though subordinate in its claim on his time (during his nearly thirty years at Harvard his door was always open to students from nine until five) Black’s research and writing was of first importance and was prodigious in volume. His Production Economics, published in 1926, though unfinished in some respects, was a landmark in the development of the production function and in the theory of the competitive firm. It led Black to develop an entirely new approach to farm management research and instruction, one that reflected far more adequately the conceptual character of the farm firm and which in time largely supplanted the older methods based on comparative accounting data. Marketing, agricultural co-operation land tenure, land economics, price analysis, forestry, population theory, food and nutrition, farm labor, and national policy were among the subjects which engaged his attention at one period or another. A selection from his writings published last year by the Harvard University Press was from nearly three hundred books, papers, pamphlets, congressional submissions, reports, and manuscripts. Black had little patience with refinement in economic theory or method; he made no effort to conceal his opinion that much discussion of finer points was pretentious nonsense. He spoke often of the need to “open up a subject”—to initiate investigation and to offer the preliminary findings. This repeatedly he did. The results were never well formed or polished. But they were always supremely relevant, and they usually paved the way for the more detailed efforts of less original men.

Throughout his life Black was a trusted adviser on a wide range of matters concerning agricultural policy. He could not be readily typed either as a liberal or as a conservative. But he was sympathetic and pragmatic. He mistrusted the men who resolved matters on general theoretical grounds, and he was profoundly interested in results. Thus during the thirties, when many economists opposed the farm legislation of the period as an improper interference with the free market, Black was concerned only with how it might be made to work. Similarly on other matters. As a result, he was called on constantly by a succession of Secretaries of Agriculture, by agricultural officials, farm leaders, congressional committees and, especially in recent years, by foreign governments.

John Donald Black was born in 1883 in the log house on the original family homestead in Cambridge, Wisconsin. He was fourth in a family of talented children — one that include three teachers, a distinguished chemist, and a leading businessman. Black made his way through normal school, became a high school teacher of algebra, botany, and physical geography and the coach of the high school athletic teams. With earnings from teaching, he proceeded to the University of Wisconsin and to a degree in English. He taught English first at Western Reserve University and then for four years at the Michigan College of Mines (as it then was) on the upper Michigan peninsula. This latter college was in a raw and bitter community; in the neighboring copper mines bitterness and strife were endemic. He became impressed, especially after a long strike in 1915, with the urgency of the social problems. It seems likely, also, that he had become increasingly less impressed by the urgency or even the feasibility of teaching English grammar to these engineers for, in any case, he had begun to smuggle economics into his courses in the form of assignments in English composition. But on returning to study labor economics at a University of Wisconsin summer school, his attention was caught by the fledgling work in farm economics of Henry C. Taylor. He turned to this subject and took his Ph.D. degree with a thesis on land tenure in Wisconsin. On completion of his degree in 1918, he went to the University of Minnesota. His academic progress there may well serve as a model for the ambitious young scholar. He was assistant professor for six months, associate professor for two years, and the head of his department from the beginning.

In the ensuing ten years, the University of Minnesota became by far the most interesting center for research and discussion of the social problems of agriculture in the United States. A brilliant group of scholars gathered to work with Black. From them came a striking series of pamphlets and monographs — those on empirical methods and the nature of market supply responses were especially noteworthy. Before long, Black had a disproportionate share of both graduate students and budget — a development which he never found it in his heart to deplore.

By the late twenties his work was widely known and, at the behest of Thomas Nixon Carver, he was invited to visit Harvard for a term. This he did in 1927, and the visit was soon followed by an offer of a professorship. Now the students came to Cambridge instead of St. Paul. Few of them had funds to afford Harvard tuition, and by an incredible exercise of energy and resourcefulness Black found them money with which to study and do research. In 1929 and the years following the Social Science Research Council awarded one hundred twenty scholarships to improve the level of teaching and research in agricultural economics and rural sociology. Of the recipients, no fewer than forty-five came to Harvard to work with Black. In some subsequent years as many as a quarter of all the students in economics belonged to what came to be called “the Black Empire.”

In 1917 Black married Nina Van Steenberg, a woman of serene good humor and keen intelligence who, with their three children — Guy, Margaret, and Alan — survives him. The Black house in Belmont was for hundreds of graduate students nearly as much a part of Harvard as were his rooms in Widener or (later on) in Littauer. Black, to the wonder of all who knew him, worked prodigiously, imperturbably, and without evident strain. The serenity, charm, and quiet good humor of his household is surely a part of the explanation.

In his relations to colleagues and university, Black was the epitome of the inner-directed man. His view of what he needed and wanted was extremely clear. Since, in the end, it invariably prevailed, the Department eventually adopted the wise course of acceding to his wishes at the outset. Where he found university rules inconvenient, he unhesitantly ignored them. The rule that members of the faculty, though sound in body and mind, should retire at some specified age, struck him as especially absurd. He continued to teach until last December when he was seventy-six. He had a certain quiet pride in the devices by which he accomplished this defeat of authority, and it was his belief that no one in the modern history of the university had approached his record.

Black was an early President of the American Farm Economic Association and one of the life Fellows of that organization. He had a founding role in the organization of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and in 1955 he was President of the American Economic Association.

Last January he was stricken by the first of a series of severe heart attack. He died on April 12.

Edward S. Mason
Arthur Smithies
John Kenneth Galbraith, Chairman.


Source: Harvard University Gazette, Vol. LVI, No. 7 (October 29, 1960), p. 36-8. Copy in the Papers of John Kenneth Galbraith (Box 527), John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Image Source: Harvard University. Class Album 1945.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier