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Werner Troesken

Written by Allison Shertzer


Werner Troesken, professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, passed away on September 14th, 2018 at the age of 54. He is survived by his son Colin and his partner Bridget Ridge. Werner was a colleague, coauthor, mentor, and friend to many in the profession.

Werner graduated with a degree in economics from Marquette University in Milwaukee before completing his doctorate in economics under the supervision of Douglass North at Washington University in St. Louis in 1992. Werner spent nearly all of his career at the University of Pittsburgh, first in the history department and later in the economics department. He also visited the University of Arizona in 1995-1996, Stanford University in 1999-2000, and the University of Chicago in 2003-2004.

Werner was the author of four books. His most recent, The Pox of Liberty: How the Constitution Left Americans Rich, Free, and Prone to Infection, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015 and explored how American institutions that guarantee personal liberty affect public health. His 2006 book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster established Werner as the preeminent economic historian of the American experience with lead water pipes, which was brought back to the center of public discourse after the Flint public water crisis in 2014. His first book, Why Regulate Utilities? was published in 1996 as one of Werner’s first scholarly works on the causes and consequences of public involvement in the gas industry.

His second book, published by the MIT press in 2004, remains his best known:  Water, Race, and Disease traces the complex history of public health infrastructure provision in cities characterized by residential segregation by race. Werner’s central insight was that the particular way in which black and white households were segregated influenced the likelihood of disease spillovers across racial groups. Universal clean water access was crucial for controlling waterborne diseases in typical southern cities, where segregation was primarily at the street level. The need to control infectious disease thus explains why black life expectancy increased relative to that of whites during the Jim Crow era. This book was awarded the Alice Hanson Jones Prize by the Economic History Association and remains a classic in the literature.

In addition, Werner published numerous articles and book chapters on a wide variety of scholarly topics. His publications appeared in many journals in economics and history, including the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, Review of Economics and Statistics, Journal of Human Resources, Journal of Development Economics, and Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. One subject he returned to often in his career was the mortality transition in American cities. Werner was fascinated by the question of how cities transcended their disease-ridden pasts to become the health and economic powerhouses of today. His article on Chicago’s mortality transition with Joseph Ferrie highlighted the central role of water purification in explaining the decline in the city’s crude death rate. Werner also published an insightful series of papers on the causes and consequences of public ownership of city water and gas systems. His interests in industrial organization extended to whiskey distillation, another of his favorite topics.

The institutions of the Jim Crow South were another focus of Werner’s research. He published papers on political participation and racial zoning ordinances with Randall Walsh and Daniel Jones, his former student.  He wrote papers on many topics with his longtime coauthor Karen Clay. Their final collaborations studied the boll weevil and pellagra in the American South and were joint with another former student, Ethan Schmick. His 2016 paper on typhoid fever and human capital, written with Joseph Ferrie and two former students, Martin Saavedra and Brian Beach, was awarded the Cole Prize for the best article published in the Journal of Economic History in that year.

Werner also made significant contributions to the economic history profession. He served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, and Social Science History. He played a pivotal role in the development of the economic history group at the University of Pittsburgh. Werner loved doing research with his graduate students, and he was an influential mentor to his junior colleagues. His boundless creativity inspired us all.

Outside of academia, Werner was a renaissance man – a talented pianist, painter, and carpenter. His enthusiasm for fine dining was legendary, as was his ability to burn off all of his dinners. Werner could bike a hundred miles in the morning and still be bursting with energy in the department in the afternoon. He will be so very missed.