In Memoriam



Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Steckel, and Richard Sylla contributed to this memorial as colleagues, collaborators, and friends of Lars Sandberg for decades.

Lars G. Sandberg, an economist and economic historian who made notable contributions in several areas—Sweden’s modern economic history, the rise and decline of British cotton textile manufacturing, and the relationship between nutrition and stature—died on September 29, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, Sandberg was professor emeritus of economics at Ohio State University, where he taught from 1970 until he retired in 1995. Previously he held faculty positions at Harvard and Dartmouth. He earned his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 1964, after graduating from Harvard College summa cum laude and winner of the Williams Prize awarded to the top economics graduate in the class of 1961.

Lars was born in Sweden in 1939, and moved to America as a child after World War II when his father, an international law expert, took up a position at the newly established United Nations. He grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Despite becoming fully Americanized and a U.S. citizen, Lars retained a slight Swedish accent throughout his life. He and one of us (Dick Sylla), who became lifelong friends as undergraduates in Harvard’s Lowell House, used Lars’s background and accent to lead others in the House to believe that Lars was of noble birth and would one day become
the Count of Uppsala, the Swedish city where he was born. As part of this ruse perpetrated on naïve fellow students, Lars would teach them that certain off-color Swedish words meant simple things like “hello” and “goodbye,” and his housemates would then show how sophisticated they were by greeting Lars with those Swedish words, much to his amusement.

From 1964 to 1967, Lars was an instructor and assistant professor of economics at Harvard, and served as the Economics Department’s Head Tutor. McCloskey encountered him in this role in the fall of 1962, in a little discussion section in Edward Chamberlain’s course on microeconomics for economics majors. Lars’ students were charmed by his direct, sarcastic manner, which was mightily aroused by their failure in repeated quizzes to get straight the difference between an income and a substitution effect. Lars was as an economic historian and member of Gerschenkron’s graduate
economic history seminar, which McCloskey also joined a couple of years later. The seminar had such future economic historians as Sylla, Knick Harley, Barbara Solow, and Richard Sutch, and in one year the later-to-be Nobel winner Thomas Sargent. Lars’ acerbic wit was again on display.

Then he spent three years as an associate professor at Dartmouth before
accepting the offer of a full professorship at Ohio State in 1970. With his European background and slight Swedish accent, Lars was a something of a sophisticate in the Economics Department at Ohio State. He knew the proper manners and social rules, and he occasionally expressed amusement by first-generation college undergraduates who seemingly did not understand such things. Lars’s wry humor and his sophisticated
bearing sometimes confused such students. He was, however, generous with his time and advice, and genuinely interested in helping all students with learning, especially those who were committed to the endeavor.

Lars was unusual among colleagues and friends in his ability to examine
objectively almost any subject, or at least a wide range of subjects. These ranged from diplomacy in the Middle East, to reactions to The Bell Curve by Murray and Herrnstein, to the economics of college sports, and to national politics. Somehow, Lars could place himself outside these conversations, much as a fly on the wall would listen but not intervene, and then he would provide objective commentary without the emotion that often obscured clear thinking.

Professionally, Lars was always alert and appreciated for his insights and quick wit at seminars and faculty meetings, whether on discussions of tenure and promotion cases, or the misuse of historical “facts,” or inappropriate methods and shaky conclusions in scholarly presentations. Quick to defend the field of economic history before doubtful colleagues, Lars stood our chosen enterprise well at these gatherings.

Lars did not begin his scholarly career as an economic historian. His early work in the 1960s leveraged his interest in his native Sweden and his command of its language to study Swedish economic policies—tax, antitrust, and agricultural policies, in particular—in the decades surrounding the middle of the twentieth century. Sweden had a reputation for innovative economic policies in this era, so Sandberg’s work was of
general interest to policy economists. His undergraduate and Ph.D. advisor was Arthur Smithies, a policy economist, and not Harvard’s great economic historian, Alexander Gerschenkron. But Gerschenkron entered his life at this time via his and Smithies’ secretary, Joyce Bigelow. Lars knew Joyce from his sessions with Smithies, and on a trip to Europe and the Middle East with Sylla in 1962, he began to woo her with an almost daily cryptic postcard from some exotic place. This courting strategy worked. Lars’s
and Joyce’s wedding took place in June,1963, with Gerschenkron (and Sylla, who soon thereafter became a student of Gerschenkron) attending.

By the late 1960s, Sandberg turned to economic history, publishing several
articles and a book on the development of the British cotton textile industry from its major role in the first industrial revolution to its becoming a symbol of British “decline” by the early twentieth century. The book, Lancashire in Decline: a study in entrepreneurship, technology, and international trade (1974), challenged long previously held views that the decline of the British textile industry represented an entrepreneurial
failure to adopt new and more efficient technologies and other forms of irrational behavior by British corporate managers. Sandberg instead demonstrated the British industry, primarily an export industry, was whipsawed and declined because of international market developments beyond its control. Other nations that early on imported textiles from Britain developed their own textile industries and substituted domestic production for British imports. Initially that happened in developing
economies such as the United States, France, Germany, and Italy. Later it occurred in such markets as Brazil, India, China, and Japan. The lesson drawn is that textile production will move to places in the world where the relatively unskilled labor it requires is available at a cost advantage over an older, more developed area. A check of the labels of origin of most of the garments we wear still appears to confirm this lesson of history.

Other influential work of Sandberg written while at Ohio State included “The Case of the Impoverished Sophisticate: Human Capital and Swedish Economic Growth before World War I” (JEH March 1979, 225-42), which challenged or significantly adapted the views of his other Harvard mentor, Gerschenkron, about the sources of early economic development in Europe. Gerschenkron promulgated the idea that economic backwardness was ultimately an advantage for rapid economic growth because latecomers could borrow effective technologies and institutions from the success stories. Sandberg argued that Sweden in many respects was hardly backward by European standards of the early nineteenth century. Admittedly, Sweden was poor compared to the leading European developers pre-1850, but it was also sophisticated as measured by levels of literacy, attributes of its banking system, modest mortality rates, and the economic success of Swedish emigrants to America. This paper was co-winner of the Arthur Cole prize judged by the editorial board for the best article published in the Journal in 1978-79.

Sandberg’s basic idea was that Protestantism gave northern Europe, and Sweden in particular, an advantage in economic development because it required followers to read the Bible. Therefore, literacy (the “sophisticate”) and the accumulation of human capital while impoverished became allies in the latter half of the nineteenth century because they promoted banking and financial developments that bolstered the creation and diffusion of
new technologies and markets. Charles Kindleberger (see his Financial History of Western Europe, 1984, pp. 131-34) challenged this portrayal of Sweden’s literacy-financial development-economic growth nexus, but subsequent work by Swedish scholars, e.g., A. Ögren and H. Lindgren, supports Sandberg’s interpretation.

Lars contributed several pieces to the literature on heights. Following a presentation on slave heights and health that Rick Steckel gave at Ohio State in the fall of 1977, Lars mentioned that Sweden had considerable height data lodged in muster rolls. In the summer of 1978, he collected a sample of 2000 heights from the Uppland regiment whose members were born in the 160-year span beginning in 1720, which became the basis for Sandberg and Steckel, “Soldier, Soldier, What Made You Grow So Tall? A Study of Height, Health, and Nutrition in Sweden, 1720–1881,” Economy and History, 23 (1980), 91-105. This paper showed an early rise in Swedish stature (by European standards) that the authors attributed to the vigorous diffusion of the potato into Swedish agriculture.

The early success of this paper led to vastly more data collected from the military archives in Stockholm in the summer of 1980 by Lars, Rick, and Rick’s wife, Barbara. Lars’s parents were gracious hosts for this five-week endeavor, and while taking a break from the delicious home cooking to dine at fine Stockholm restaurants, Barbara (being pregnant) never overcame the unpleasant taste of herring on her pallet. Further collaborations with Rick Steckel led to the publication of five height papers, the most influential of which were “Overpopulation and Malnutrition Rediscovered: Hard Times in 19th Century Sweden,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988), 1-19, and “Was Industrialization Hazardous to Your Health? – Not in Sweden,” in Richard Steckel and Roderick Floud (ed.) Health and Welfare during Industrialization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 127-60.

After retiring from Ohio State in 1995, Lars continued to teach there and as an adjunct professor of economic history at Uppsala University in Sweden. An avid reader, he spent much of his time in libraries, and he followed developments in Sweden by reading its daily papers on the Internet. He also enjoyed the arts and sporting events, rarely missing Masterpiece Theater or Ohio State football games. He loved boats, sailing the coast of Sweden and cruising to Alaska and the Caribbean with family and friends. Lars chose to take an early retirement, which ended up lasting a quarter century. He enjoyed every day of it.