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Frank Lewis

Written by Ann Carlos, Ian Keay, and Taylor Jaworski

It is with great sadness that we write to inform the economic history community of Frank Lewis’ passing on March 14, 2018. Frank was at various points our teacher, colleague, co-author, friend, and mentor. He will be missed.

Frank Lewis was Emeritus Professor of Economics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He graduated from the prestigious honours economics program at McGill University in Montreal in 1967, before completing his doctorate in economics under the supervision of Stanley Engerman at the University of Rochester. Frank spent his entire forty-five year career at Queen’s, during which he became one of Canada’s preeminent economic historians and played a pioneering role in applying cliometric techniques to the study of Canada’s past.

Frank brought a discerning and critical perspective to the difficult questions he addressed. His research was motivated by a desire to understand and test accepted historical narratives. He used economic theory to structure his analysis and he was painstaking in his efforts to collect the evidence necessary to test the robustness of his conclusions. His work opened new horizons and sometimes changed our fundamental understanding of Canadian history. Frank had publications that spanned over four decades and appeared in the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, Economic History Review, Journal of Political Economy, and American Economic Review, among others. He also produced a long list of book chapters and editorial contributions. He was recognized as a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and awarded the Harry Johnson Prize by the Canadian Journal of Economics in 1999 and the Jonathan Hughes Prize for teaching by the Economic History Association in 2016.

Frank’s first published paper, co-authored with Claudia Goldin, estimated the economic cost of the American Civil War and is a classic in the economic history of the United States. Beginning with his work on the Canadian ‘wheat boom’, Frank examined questions related to farm settlement on the prairies, the efficiency of agriculture in Lower Canada, and the development of the economy of Upper Canada. He then turned his attention to two other major topics in Canadian economic history – the fur trade and railroad building. In particular, his papers with Ann Carlos examine the impact of the commercial fur trade on indigenous peoples. This work culminated in their book, Commerce by a Frozen Sea, and a chapter on indigenous commerce in the Cambridge History of Capitalism.  With David Eltis and David Richardson, Frank also explored the impact of the trans-Atlantic migration of Africans on slave prices, agricultural productivity, and profitability in the eighteenth century. His most recent work brought a new perspective to another fundamental question in Canadian economic history: who chose to immigrate to Canada? In all of his work, meticulous attention to theory and data brought new insights to unsettled questions.

Frank’s impact on Canadian economic history was not confined to his research. The importance of his teaching and supervision over the past forty-five years cannot be overstated. In his classes he promoted a theoretically rigorous approach to economic history as a field of research, and he passed this approach on to generations of economics majors at Queen’s. He directly influenced and mentored a nearly inclusive list of Canadian economic historians, including Herb Emery at the University of New Brunswick, Stuart Wilson at the University of Regina, Gillian Hamilton at the University of Toronto, David Green at the University of British Columbia, Chris Minns at the London School of Economics, James Fenske at the University of Warwick, Ian Keay at Queen’s, and his son, Joshua Lewis, at the Université de Montréal.

Frank was a steadfast leader within the community of economists and economic historians in Canada.  He made substantive and lasting contributions to the success and growth of the Canadian economic history study group (CNEH), and was an important long-time member of the Canadian Economics Association, Cliometric Society, and Economic History Association. He was a steady and frequent contributor to the editorial review process at the Canadian Journal of Economics, all of the leading economic history journals, and was twice appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Economic History.  His presence at CEA, Clio, EHA and CNEH meetings consistently brought a first-rate academic mind to bear on the papers he discussed and sessions he attended.

Lastly, Frank was a teller of and participant in many great stories. Each of us has (at least) one to share:

Taylor Jaworski: I arrived at Queen’s University in Fall 2014 excited to have two economic history colleagues in Frank and Ian Keay. Early in my time I was at a seminar with Frank in attendance. He quickly became interested (perhaps, skeptical) of the presenter’s model, which he began to express with several queries. At one point, the presenter asked Frank to clarify his line of questioning: “Do you want me to answer based on the theory or the history?” Frank quickly responded: “The history!” That sounds about right.

Ian Keay: I wrote a paper on late 19th century Canadian trade policy with Frank. Most of the writing went very smoothly – Frank had his sections and I had mine. However, we wrote the introduction together. I would write – Frank would re-write. I would write – Frank would re-write.  After a few iterations this process was becoming frustrating, so we sat down together to work out what we wanted to say, and how we wanted to say it.  Back and forth, back and forth.  The meeting got longer and longer. Finally in exasperation I said, “Frank, why do you care.  This sentence doesn’t even matter.” He replied, “Ian, every word matters.” That exchange perfectly illustrates Frank’s dry sense of humour, his patience with my inexperience, and his complete unwillingness to compromise on the quality of his research or his writing. He was right, every word does matter, and having someone of Frank’s stature within our profession point out that fact in no uncertain terms is just one of the many, sometimes hard lessons I learned from him. I miss Frank as a mentor (a word he hated), a colleague, and a friend.

Ann Carlos:  I knew Frank’s name before I ever met Frank. I remember this because I started going to the Canadian Economic History Conferences (now CNEH), the big question was “who would be the discussant on the paper”. I lived in fear that it would be Frank. Frank was thorough, insightful, probing, and had this amazing clarity to see to the heart of the issue and the heart of how you had fudged it. My early memory came back this Fall when I was to present a paper at the CNEH in Toronto which was not co-authored with Frank. When I heard that Frank was going to be attending, I had this immediate visceral reaction and anxiety attack because I realized that once again Frank would be able to ask me that insightful probing question. Frank and I published our first paper together in 1992 and our most recent in 2017. Over the years of working with him (on the words over and back), I only came to admire these all the more which makes the hole only larger. 

There are many other stories that reflect Frank’s commitment to economic history, encouragement to colleagues, and great humanity.