February 11, 1999
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Nobelist and Economist Wassily Leontif Dies


Wassily Leontief

Wassily W. Leontief, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics Emeritus and winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Economics, died on Feb. 5 at New York University Medical Center. He was 92.

Leontief won the prize for developing input-output analysis, which shows how changes in an economic sector affects other economic sectors. The prize announcement credited Leontief as the "sole and unchallenged creator" of this powerful idea, which is now a standard economic-projection tool in countries and corporations around the world.

His win capped a three-year Nobel streak for Harvard that included fellow Harvard economists Simon Kuznets, who won in 1971, and Kenneth Arrow, who won in 1972.

At a 1973 press conference shortly after the prize announcement, Leontief served up a down-to-earth example of how input-output works: "When you make bread, you need eggs, flour, and milk. And if you want more bread, you must use more eggs. There are cooking recipes for all the industries in the economy."

As the example suggests, Leontief's concept has the virtue of tracking dynamic interrelationships rather than relatively static bookkeeping data, such as gross domestic product or total government spending.

"The basis of Leontief's complex system is a gridlike table, similar to the mileage chart on a road map, showing what individual industries buy from and sell to each other," according to Current Biography (Jan. 1967). "With the inclusion of such sectors as government, consumers, and foreign countries, it gives an overall picture of the circulation of goods and services in a national economy."

When Leontief came to Harvard in 1931, he stipulated that the University would have to help him develop his new analytical system. With an initial grant of $2,000 from Harvard's Committee on Research in the Social Sciences, he began developing his first input-output table (on 42 U.S. industries).

After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, Leontief's method became a critical part of national war-production planning. As a consultant to the U.S. Labor Department, he developed an input-output table for more than 90 economic sectors. During the early 1960s, Leontief and Marvin Hoffenberg of Johns Hopkins University used input-output analysis to forecast the economic effects of disarmament. In 1961-62, Leontief served on a 10-member United Nations panel studying the social and economic consequences of disarmament.

Leontief left Harvard in 1975 and continued to refine the input- output system at New York University, where he became a University Professor in 1983.

Born on Aug. 5, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Leontief was a precocious student who entered the University of Leningrad at age 15. Chafing under the intellectual restrictions of the Soviet system, he soon landed in jail for anti-Communist activities. In 1925, he headed for the University of Berlin, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1928. Shortly before coming to the U.S. in 1931, he advised the Chinese government on planning a new railroad.

Leontief's books include The Structure of the American Economy, 1919-1929 (1941, 1953), Studies in the Structure of the American Economy (1953), Input-Output Economics (1966; 2nd ed. 1986), The Future of the World Economy (1977), and The Future Impact of Automation on Workers (1986, with F. Duchin).

Beyond economics, Leontief enjoyed art, ballet, wine, and trout fishing.

Leontief leaves his wife, the writer Estelle Helena Marks; daughter Svetlana Eugenia Alpers, a fine-arts professor at the University of California, Berkeley; and two grandsons.

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College