Thomas McCraw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who used biography to explore thorny issues in economics, died Saturday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 72.
He had been treated for heart and lung problems, his wife, Susan, said.
McCraw, who taught from 1976 to 2007 at Harvard Business School, won the Pulitzer for history in 1985 for “Prophets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis and Alfred E. Kahn." The book focused on those men, of different eras, to illustrate how government regulation of industry affected the U.S. economy from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries.
Adams was president of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1880s; Brandeis, the lawyer and Supreme Court justice, worked to curb the power of banks and corporations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Landis was chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission during the Depression, and Kahn was chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, which deregulated airline fares in 1978.
The book was recognized for melding scholarship and engaging prose.
“McCraw explains sophisticated economic theory in accessible terms," The New York Times Book Review said, “and he has a historian’s knack for isolating such basic American traits as a mistrust of big business and for showing how regulators manipulated these traits to implement their policies."
In “Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction" (2007), McCraw examined capitalism through the life story of its leading 20th century advocate, with his Darwinian theory of “creative destruction": that businesses must be rendered obsolete and extinct by other, better businesses if an economy is to move forward.
In “The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin and Other Immigrants Forged the American Economy," published this year, he wrote about how a nation born into financial ruin after the Revolution saved itself and created a stable financial system. He credited the efforts of immigrants like Alexander Hamilton, born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, who was the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, and the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, who was the fourth Treasury secretary and whose almost-13-year tenure remains the longest in U.S. history.
“The key feature of his work is the use of biography," said Geoffrey Jones, who succeeded McCraw as the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at Harvard. “You hear about personal lives, motivations, but he manages to deal with issues, like regulation, that are usually left to dry textbooks. That was his real gift."