Harold Burbank

photo neededIn economics, Harold Hitchens Burbank (1887-1951), oft-cited as H.H. Burbank, was the chairman of the Harvard economics department, from 1927 to 1938, noted for his communications and interactions with American mathematician Edwin Wilson (1934-1938) about teaching some type of physical “mathematical economics” course, based on thermodynamics, steam engine theory, and equilibrium as described by physical chemistry, and latter, supposedly, for denying a post at Harvard to economist Paul Samuelson, because he disliked people who were “smart, Jewish, or Keynesian”, as Robert Solow later commented (Ѻ).

Wilson
See main: Harvard Pareto circle
On 23 Mar 1934, American mathematician Edwin Wilson, the famous sole protégé of Willard Gibbs, wrote the following to Burbank: [1]

“I should not attempt to teach economics but simply mathematical economics, which in many respects is a different thing. I couldn’t teach the steam engine, but I have taught thermodynamics and the analogy is about the same.”

On 20 Dec 1938, Wilson wrote the following to Burbank: [2]

“Schumpeter has suggested that it would be particularly well for me to give as I gave last time a general theory of equilibrium such as this is understood by physical chemists including the phase systems of Willard Gibbs. Most of our equilibrium theory in economics really has for its background the notions of equilibrium which arise in mechanics. It is pretty high-brow stuff. Mathematically or physically it isn’t any more high-brow than things which I long taught at Yale University and at the Institute of Technology. Although Pareto was certainly quite familiar with the types of equilibrium which arise in physical chemistry and are necessary in fact for the study of the steam engine he doesn’t use this line of though in economics.”

A few weeks prior, on 4 Nov 1938, Wilson wrote the following to Lawrence Henderson: [3]

“I have never understood what John Dewey meant, if he really meant anything, by saying that the social sciences must not imitate the natural sciences in their methodology but must develop their own methodology.”

Here, what Wilson is ruminating about is the age old two cultures debate, which comes in various reincarnations: one nature vs. two natures thinkers, Clausius culture vs. Shakespeare culture, left brain (scientists and engineers) vs. right brain (humanities scholars) culture, natural scientists vs. social scientists, etc., all of which underlyingly is a religious (belief system) tension issue, generally rooted in differences in understanding about choice and morality, one hardly ever addressed openly.

Samuelson
At the time of the completion of Paul Samuelson's dissertation, Foundations of Analytical Economics—written at fever pitch from mid-1940 to Jan 1941, which followed suit in the wake of his advisor Edwin Wilson’s decisive 1938 critical review comment suggestion to Samuelson that he use equation 133 of Willard GibbsOn the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, to formulate a theory of economic stability, modeled on chemical thermodynamic stability and equilibrium change—two factors seemed to have been floating around in the mind of Burbank, in regards to his opposition to Samuelson. The first of which, as has been speculated about elsewhere, Burbank had developed an immense dislike and aversion to the use of mathematics and or physical mathematics in economics, possibly as a result of Wilson's push of the difficult 700-equation filled treatise of Willard Gibbs at him for the foundation of mathematical economics at Harvard, in the last six or so years. Economics, before Samuelson, traditionally did not use a substantial amount of mathematics. English economist Alfred Marshall’s 1890 Principles of Economics, the dominant textbook of the previous decades, for example, relegated all mathematics to the appendix.

The second, as has been documented, was a combination of the lingering antisemitism in the air at Harvard at the cusp of WWII and Burbank's anti-semitism inclinations.

As a result of these circumstances, Burbank ordered the hand-set plates to Samuelson’s prize winning, Le Chatelier principle using, dissertation in economics, one that would later win him the second inaugural Nobel Prize in economics, destroyed after 1,500 copies. American economics journalist David Warsh explains the Samuelson situation as follows: [4]

“At Harvard erupted a series of battles that cost the great old university its leadership in economics. The resistance to mathematics continued. Although Harvard University Press was compelled by prior agreement to publish Foundation, because Samuelson's dissertation had won the economics department's prize for best thesis, Chairman Harold Burbank ordered the laboriously hand-set plates (with their thousands of equations) destroyed after a single printing of 1,500 copies. That meant no revisions were possible for the next thirty-five years. Then, too, the Veritas Society, a group of alumni dedicated to opposing Keynesian influences, waged a witch hunt against the department.”

Swedish-born American economic sociologist Richard Swedberg corroborates on this further, through the lens of Joseph Schumpeter, who disliked Burbank, viewing him as a rather bitter man, a mediocre scholar, strongly anti-semitic, who had complete power over the junior faculty appointments which he used to keep down a number of Jews in the faculty, Samuelson in particular, whose appointment he blocked. [5]

The Jewish-issue, to note may not have been the complete reason for Samuelson’s block; as reported by one biographer, after one faculty meeting during which Samuelson’s appointment was discussed, Schumpeter proclaimed in a loud voice: [7]

“I could have understood if they didn’t want to hire him because he is a Jew. But that wasn’t it—he was just too brilliant for them.”

In any event, in spite of Burbank’s plates destruction ordering and the alleged blocking of Samuelson’s post, his 1948 Economics: an Introductory Analysis, became the best-selling economics textbook of the 20th century—by 2009 it had been translated into 41 languages and had sold over 4 million copies—and his classical thermodynamics influenced dissertation Foundations of Economic Analysis became the “Bible of Economics” (Ѻ), superseding Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Political Economy (1890), and prior to that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), for the title of Economic Bible. [7]

Education
Burbank completed his A.B. at Dartmouth College in 1909, followed by his A.M. at Harvard University in 1910 with a dissertation on “General Property Tax in Massachusetts,1775 to 1792” (Ѻ) (Ѻ), after which he became teacher of political economy, administrative, officer and editor, Harvard University member of the Department of Economics, 1915-51, and Chairman, 1927-38, and from 1942-49 a member of the Board of Editors of the Review of Economics and Statistics. (Ѻ)

Burbank professorship
The Burbank chair or "Harold Hitchens Burbank Professor of Political Economy" was established with funds from the estate of Burbank, the first holder of which was Richard Musgrave, followed by Bob Fogle, then Dwight Perkins (1963-2006), and currently Torben Iversen and or James Stock. [6]

References
1. Weintraub, E. Roy. (1991). Stabilizing Dynamics: Constructing Economic Knowledge (Wilson letters, pg. 60; also 63-65). Cambridge University Press.
2. (a) Wilson, Edwin. (1938). “Letter to H.H. Burbank”, Dec 20; in Wilson Correspondence, HUG 4878.203.
(b) Mirowski, Philip. (1993). “The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick”, in: Non-natural Social Science: Reflecting on the Enterprise of More Heat Than Light, Annual Supplement to Volume 25, History of Political Economy (editor: Neil De Marchi) (§5, pgs. 305-50; quote, pg. 339). Duke University Press.
(c) Weintraub, E. Roy. (1991). Stabilizing Dynamics: Constructing Economic Knowledge (Wilson letters, pg. 60; also 63-65). Cambridge University Press.
3. (a) Wilson, Edwin. (1938). “Letter to L.J. Henderson”, Nov 4; in Wilson Correspondence, HUG 4878.203.
(b) Mirowski, Philip. (1993). “The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick”, in: Non-natural Social Science: Reflecting on the Enterprise of More Heat Than Light, Annual Supplement to Volume 25, History of Political Economy (editor: Neil De Marchi) (§5, pgs. 305-50; quote, pg. 339). Duke University Press.
4. Warsh, David. (2006). Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: a Story of Economic Discovery (pitch fever, pg. 118; Burbank, pg. 120) (Ѻ). W.W. Norton & Co.
5. Swedberg, Richard. (1991). Joseph A. Schumpeter: His Life and Work (pg. 1950). Wiley, 2013.
6. (a) Email communication from Dwight Perkins to Libb Thims (26 Dec 2013).
(b) Dwight H. Perkins (faculty) – Harvard University.
(c) Torben Iversen (faculty) – Harvard University.
(d) James Stock (faculty) – Harvard University.
7. Szpiro, George. (2011). Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics, and the 300-year Journey to the Black-Scholes Equation: a Story of Genius and Discovery (pg. 183-85). Basic Books.

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