William & Mary

Inspiration: Black Economists: Sir W. Arthur Lewis


Lewis’s foundational and pioneering research earned him the ultimate recognition as a Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1979.

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Sir W. Arthur LewisSir W. Arthur Lewis, Nobel Laureate in Economics

Raised by school‐teacher parents in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and educated in St. Mary’s College there—a school that also produced poet Derek Walcott, the other Nobel Laureate of St. Lucia—Lewis began his studies and career at the London School of Economics (LSE). He subsequently held distinguished professorships at the universities of Manchester and Princeton.

He also served as a senior economic advisor in West Africa in addition to administrative stints as Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and as founding president of the Caribbean Development Bank. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1963, Arthur Lewis retired in 1983 and died in 1991 at the age of 76 in his summer home in Grenada.  

It was in Manchester that he did some of his most significant works in development economics, especially the seminal article `Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor' (1954) and the treatise, The Theory of Economic Growth (1955). Lewis is also known for his work, while at Princeton, on the history of the second industrial revolution and the new international economic order. While The Theory of Economic Growth (1955) and Growth and Fluctuations 1870–1913 (1978) are both regarded as classics, it is the 1954 article that constitutes his most influential single contribution having spawned a large literature on development as structural transformation. 

Lewis’s foundational and pioneering research arguably launched the field of modern development economics. This and a deep knowledge of economic history earned him the ultimate recognition as a Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1979. A gifted scholar and a perceptive public intellectual with the sensibilities of a British Fabian socialist (a view he shared with the likes of Gandhi), he was blessed with the good luck of appearing in an era on the cusp of major world events, including decolonization, the global civil rights movement, centrally planned economies, and the urgency for accelerating economic development felt in the newly independent countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Lewis is also remembered as an independent‐minded trailblazer: the first black man to serve on the faculties of LSE, Manchester, and Princeton; to head the University of the West Indies, and to be awarded the Nobel Prize in a field other than peace and literature. Given his origins in a poor outpost of the British Empire and the blatant institutional racism he had to confront at the intellectual centers of the metropole, his life’s journey provides a great inspiration to all who cherish the life of the mind, responsible citizenship, and dream of living in a world free of racial injustice and abject poverty.

-Berhanu Abegaz
Department of Economics, William & Mary

Book cover: Racial Conflict and Economic DevelopmentReview of Lewis' book Racial Conflict and Economic Development, Harvard University Press, 1985

Is economic equality necessary for social peace? Why do the strong oppress and impoverish the weak? How are developing nations overcoming the legacy of colonialism? These are a few of the many thought-provoking concerns addressed in this book. The first in a new series—The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures—it tackles a wide range of topics dealing with the economics of racial conflict in important areas of the world.

Race is often introduced as a key factor, whether it is or not, in such highly controversial subjects as colonialism, federalism, dual labor markets, affirmative action, multinational corporations, the international economic order, and of course discrimination itself. Sir W. Arthur Lewis discerns how race and economics affect individuals and groups, bringing a personal viewpoint to the problems faced by both less-developed and more-developed countries.

How many black vice-presidents should a major North American corporation employ? Do East Indians and Canadians demonstrate more aptitude for business than West Indians? Does affirmative action work in education or business? Though he boldly confronts grave national and international problems, Lewis does so with wisdom, equanimity, optimism, even a touch of humor. His individualistic and commonsensical thoughts and opinions may not please or satisfy everyone, but they cannot fail to intrigue and invite discussion.