Harry Gordon Johnson

For other people named Harry Johnson, see Harry Johnson (disambiguation).
Harry Gordon Johnson
Born (1923-05-26)May 26, 1923
Toronto, Canada
Died May 9, 1977(1977-05-09) (aged 53)
Geneva, Switzerland
Nationality Canadian
Institution University of Chicago, London School of Economics, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Field Economics
School or
Alma mater University of Cambridge, University of Toronto, Harvard University
Influences Joseph Schumpeter

Harry Gordon Johnson (1923–1977) OC was a Canadian economist who studied topics such as international trade and international finance and is regarded as one of the most prolific economists of the 20th century.[1]

Nobel laureate James Tobin said about him: "For the economics profession throughout the world, the third quarter of this century was an Age of Johnson. ... It was his impact on his own profession ... that justifies calling the era his Age."[2]

He was Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago from 1959 (and from 1969, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor) until his death in 1977. He was also Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics from 1966 until 1974. And he briefly was professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva until his death. He was twice Editor of the Journal of Political Economy.[3] He had a stroke at age 49 and died prematurely from a second stroke at age 53.[4]

In 1976 the Canadian government named him an officer of the Order of Canada and in 1977 he was named a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association.

The Canadian Economics Association awards an annual Harry G. Johnson Prize for the best paper published in the Canadian Journal of Economics.

Early life and education

He was born on 26 May 1923 in Toronto, Canada, the elder son of two children of Henry Herbert Johnson, newspaperman and later secretary of the Liberal Party of Ontario, and his wife, Frances Lily Muat, lecturer in child psychology at the Institute of Child Study of the University of Toronto.

Johnson was educated at the University of Toronto schools and then obtained scholarships to the University of Toronto. This as followed by Cambridge for his BA, University of Toronto to earn his MA and finally at Harvard he gained his PhD.

He developed an interest in the history of thought and was much influenced by Harold Innis's lectures and ideas on Canadian and generalized economic history. He later wrote that they remained an integral part of his intellectual equipment ever since. He graduated in 1943 and then, at the age of twenty, became, for one year, acting professor and sole member of the economics staff at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

In 1944 Johnson volunteered for active service in the Canadian armed forces and, after training, was sent to England in 1945, eventually doing clerical work in Canada House. Demobilized in Britain, he was able to go to Cambridge, became an affiliated student of Jesus College, and took another bachelor's degree, obtaining the top first class in the economics tripos. Maurice Dobb was his supervisor.[5] He became a member of the Political Economy Club, and at his first meeting heard John Maynard Keynes present a paper. While at Cambridge he was appointed a member the Cambridge Apostles.

He was particularly impressed by the breadth and the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter, which greatly influenced his writings in later years. He completed the course work requirements for the doctorate in three terms. In 1948 he married Elizabeth Scott, daughter of Harold Victor Serson, civil engineer. She later became one of the editors of the collected writings of Keynes. They had one son and one daughter.


Harry, as Johnson was universally known, was an inveterate conference-goer. In addition he visited innumerable universities, especially in Canada and in Asia. He "circled the globe like a planet" (Scott 80). This travelling style began in the fifties when he was teaching refresher courses for economists in Karachi and Singapore. His travelling and ubiquitousness became legendary.

Physically, he was a large man, overweight or at least stout, with piercing dark brown eyes. But he was far from sluggish, and gave an impression of intense and disciplined intellectual and physical energy. He was often loudly and informally dressed. His energy was kept under control by his continuous carving of wooden statuettes, of which he made thousands in many different artistic styles. He carved at seminars and in his room, throughout the most concentrated discussions of intricate economic problems.

Economist Jagdish Bhagwati, writing about Johnson's productivity and accessibility, said, "Countless numbers of manuscripts would reach him, from aspiring students of international economics and somehow Harry found the energy and time to read them carefully and write back to the authors promptly. ... once ... when he was staying with us, my wife asked him what he had been doing in the early hours of the morning when we had been still asleep. 'I read two manuscripts, one indifferent and the other bad; what is worse, I could have written one good paper in that time.' "[2]

He was a strong drinker and his reputation at London School of Economics and Political Science was that he travelled weekly between London and Chicago, and he would enter each flight with a bottle of Southern Comfort and would leave it with a fully written paper! According to Moggeridge he was often deeply intoxicated whilst attending seminars and workshops. Despite his prolific writing, he was criticized for essentially rewriting the same articles over and over. George Stigler was asked about Johnson's 500 published papers versus his 100. Stigler replied, "Yes, but mine were all different."

The enormous admiration and affection for Johnson was reflected in the numerous obituaries by members of the economics profession that appeared in 1977. "For the economics profession throughout the world, the third quarter of this century was an Age of Johnson" (Tobin 443). "He bestrode our discipline like a Colossus", "He was an institution" (ibid.). "Canada lost one of its greatest sons". He was "larger than life’ (the most common remark). "The one and only Harry" (The Economist, 14 May 1977, 121). Harry Johnson died of a stroke in Geneva on 9 May 1977; he was survived by his wife.


Johnson made many contributions to the development of Hecksher-Ohlin theory and until the 1970s according to Moggeridge, was the second most quoted trade theorist after Paul Samuelson. Johnson also helped to found the monetary approach to the balance of payments and wrote many high quality surveys of monetary economics that helped to clarify the issues in question. Despite being perhaps the most prolific economist of the modern era, Johnson's star has waned as is evidenced by the significant fall (discussed in Moggeridge's biography) in citations to his work in the past decade.

The Canadian Economics Association presents a Harry Johnson Prize every year for the best article to appear in the Canadian Journal of Economics in the preceding year.



Johnson graduated from the University of Toronto in 1943 and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1958 with studies in between at Cambridge in the late 1940s during which he met Keynes.

He held permanent teaching positions throughout Europe and Canada, as well as visiting positions at universities worldwide. Notable were his time with Chicago from 1959 to 1977, also during 1966–74 he worked at the London School of Economics. He also held a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and he briefly was professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva until his death.


He retained a lifelong interest in Canadian politics and was heavily critical of nationalist and interventionist policies that prevailed at his time.

In his policy-oriented writings, he clearly showed his beliefs in personal freedom and markets.

Selected works


Johnson published many works on international and monetary economics theory. He also wrote many works aimed at the general public and policymakers.

According to Paul Samuelson, when Johnson died he had eighteen papers in proof: “That is dying with your boots on!” said Samuelson

Johnson earned many honors. In 1977 he was named a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association, and in 1976 the Canadian government named him an officer of the Order of Canada.

Johnson wrote a large number of books and articles, the total of his writings were:



  1. Biography of Harry Johnson Retrieved on 2 March 2007
  2. 1 2 Moggridge, D. E. (2012), Harry Johnson: A Life in Economics, Cambridge University Press, pp. 413–415, ISBN 978-1-107-40527-1, retrieved 17 August 2013
  3. Shils, Edward (1 December 1991), "Harry G. Johnson", in Edward Shils, Remembering the University of Chicago: Teachers, Scientists, and Scholars, University of Chicago Press, p. 202, ISBN 978-0-226-75335-5, retrieved 17 August 2013
  4. Moggridge, D. E. (2012), Harry Johnson: A Life in Economics, Cambridge University Press, p. 217, ISBN 978-1-107-40527-1, retrieved 17 August 2013
  5. "Harry Gordon Johnson (1923–1977)"
  6. Writings on Harry Johnson Retrieved on 2 March 2007

External links

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