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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smithies, Arthur (1907–1981)

by A. J. Hagger

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Arthur Smithies (1907-1981), economist, was born on 12 December 1907 at Lindisfarne, Hobart, son of Tasmanian-born parents John Smithies, accountant, and his wife Hilda Annie, née Stephenson. Frederick Smithies was his uncle. Educated at The Hutchins School, and the University of Tasmania (LL.B, 1929), Arthur won the James Backhouse Walker prize for proficiency in 1928. He was named the Tasmanian Rhodes scholar for 1929 and entered Magdalen College, Oxford (BA, 1932), where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. Finding England ‘too structured’, he took up a Commonwealth Fund fellowship in the United States of America, graduating with a PhD in economics from Harvard University in 1934. An instructor in economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he married Katharine Hermione Ripman, an Oxford graduate, there on 22 February 1935.

In July 1935 Smithies was appointed assistant-economist to (Sir) Roland Wilson in the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Canberra. Returning to the USA in 1938, he became professor of economics at the University of Michigan. He was naturalised and in 1943 joined the advisory staff of the Bureau of the Budget in Washington, DC, heading its economic section. In charge of the Economic Cooperation Administration’s program division in 1948, he played a key role in the management of the Marshall Plan.

Smithies was appointed professor of economics at Harvard University in 1948; he was chairman (1950-55, 1959-61) of the economics department. In 1957 he became the Nathaniel Ropes professor of political economy. An unorthodox teacher, he had a breezy manner and would ‘think out loud’ rather than lecture, but he stimulated debate among his students and taught them to analyse policies to their logical end. In 1965-74 he was master of Kirkland House.

A prolific writer, Smithies contributed numerous articles to journals such as Econometrica and the American Economic Review. He was an advocate of Keynesian theories and policies; his research concentrated on macroeconomics and the US budgetary process, but he also wrote authoritatively on a wide range of topics from location theory to Schumpeterian economics. His Federal Budget and Fiscal Policy (1948) was the standard source on the budget for twenty years. In 1955 he published Economics and Public Policy and the influential Budgetary Process in the United States. Editor (1957-65) of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, he was the founder in 1962 of the Journal of Economic Abstracts (later Journal of Economic Literature). In 1963 he wrote Economic Stability in Australia.

Smithies was an adviser to many US government agencies, including the Office of Defense Mobilization (1951-52) and the Hoover Commission Task Force (1954). During the 1960s and early 1970s he worked on the economic problems of developing countries, as a consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency, helping to develop economic policies in South Vietnam and other countries. He retired from Harvard in 1978. Tall and athletic, he had a passion for rowing. A member of the Cambridge Boat Club, he died of myocardial infarction on 9 September 1981 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, after rowing on the Charles River, and was buried in Belmont cemetery. His wife and their son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. King (ed), A Biographical Dictionary of Australian and New Zealand Economists (2007)
  • New York Times, 11 Sept 1981, p B16
  • Mercury (Hobart), 20 Oct 1981, p 39.

Citation details

A. J. Hagger, 'Smithies, Arthur (1907–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smithies-arthur-15735/text26923, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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