Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel-winning economist whose number-crunching empiricism upended established thinking, most provocatively about the economics of slavery, died on Tuesday in Oak Lawn, Ill. He was 86.
His death was announced by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, where he had been a distinguished professor. He lived in the Hyde Park section of Chicago.
Professor Fogel, a rumpled former New Yorker by turns amiable and combative, was widely known for work that aroused objections if not open hostility in academic circles, chiefly through his pioneering use of cliometrics, which applies economic theory and statistical methods to the study of history. (Clio was history’s muse in Greek mythology.)
He first came to prominence in 1964, when he contended that railroads had been far less important to the nation’s growth than economists had long asserted. An outgrowth of doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University, his book “Railroads and American Economic Growth” became an immediate classic.
But it was the publication 10 years later of “Time on the Cross,” a two-volume study of slavery, written with Stanley L. Engerman, that propelled Professor Fogel into the critical spotlight and instant celebrity.
They contended that slavery had not been, as widely portrayed, an inefficient system destined for collapse, with slaves living in virtual concentration camps and worked to death.
Rather, after studying medical records, cotton yields and other data, the authors argued that slavery had been highly efficient in utilizing economies of scale and that plantation owners had regarded workers as economic assets whom they were inclined to treat at least as well as livestock. This tended to limit exploitation, Professor Fogel and his colleague found, declaring, in fact, that slave life in the South was generally better than that of industrial workers in the North.
An intellectual firestorm resulted. Some critics accused Professor Fogel, who was married to an African-American woman, of being an apologist for slavery, though he and Professor Engerman had been explicit in acknowledging that slaves had been exploited in ways not captured by statistical data.
Despite the attacks, the authors did not budge from their findings and their main point — that slavery would not have ended without the Civil War.
“Everything Bob touches is controversial,” said Claudia D. Goldin, a former student of Professor Fogel’s and now an economics professor at Harvard. “It stems from the fact that he thinks outside the box.”
Professor Fogel received the Nobel in economic science in 1993, sharing it with a fellow cliometrician, Douglass C. North. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Professor Fogel for clarifying railroads’ role in American economic development and the economic role of slavery.
He spent the latter decades of his career focused on demography and how standards of living, including nutritional resources, affect health and longevity. Through much of history, he found, shorter people and those with low body mass were more prone to illness.
He analyzed Civil War draft and pension records, linking them to mid-19th-century and early 20th-century census records to show how improved health enhances economic productivity.
He estimated that one-third of per capita economic growth in Britain between 1790 and 1980 was due to improved nutrition.
Professor Fogel’s range of inquiry was extraordinarily wide; his monumental study of Britain, for example, involved medicine, physiology, demography and statistics in addition to economics and history. Robert A. Margo, professor of economics at Boston University, called him “the original interdisciplinary scholar.”
In 2011 Professor Fogel and three co-authors published what The New York Times called the “capstone” of a huge project that had occupied decades of his later work: “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”
Robert William Fogel was born on July 1, 1926, in New York City, the second of two sons of parents who had emigrated from Russia and struggled to run small businesses during the Depression. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and enrolled at Cornell, where, prompted by widespread forecasts of a postwar return to Depression-era unemployment, his interests swung from physics and chemistry to economics and history.
Before pursuing an academic career, Professor Fogel worked for years as a professional organizer for the Communist Party, which he eventually rejected.
In 1949 he married Enid Cassandra Morgan, whom he had met while she headed a Harlem youth group promoting the Progressive Party presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace. Their sons, Michael and Steven, both born before he began his graduate work at Columbia University, survive, as do five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Mrs. Fogel died in 2007.
In an essay for the Nobel committee, Professor Fogel wrote that he entered Columbia “with the naïve belief that by combining the study of history and economics I would quickly discover the fundamental forces that had determined technological and institutional changes over the ages, and that such knowledge would point to solutions to the current problems of economic instability and inequity.”
He discovered, however, how little was known about these large processes and began to look at more discrete subjects, like railroad and steel technologies, employing an unorthodox approach using advanced statistical and analytical methods.
In his railroad analysis, Professor Fogel contended that wheat, corn, pork and beef — the four major agricultural goods — would have been shipped on existing water routes and by wagon had railroads not been available. He figured that in the absence of railroads, national output by 1890 would have been reduced by only about 5 percent.
This sharply contradicted the dominant view. A prominent contemporary, W. W. Rostow, had asserted that railroads were a major factor in the American economy’s growth after the Civil War.
Many of Professor Fogel’s findings have achieved broad acceptance, but criticism of the slavery work was intense. (Professor Goldin said many of the attacks came from people who had not read “Time on the Cross.”)
One critic or another said the work relied on data from unrepresentative plantations, that the mathematics were imprecise, that it focused on the number of slaves who had been whipped rather than the frequency of the whipping, and that it failed to address the psychological effect of whipping on other slaves.
Professors Fogel and Engerman acknowledged some of the criticisms in later work but stood by their findings.
Professor Fogel taught at Johns Hopkins, the University of Rochester and Harvard in addition to the University of Chicago. He was on the faculty there from 1964 to 1975 and rejoined in 1981. He became director of the Center for Population Economics there.
In his Nobel essay, Professor Fogel paid tribute to his wife, Enid, whom he called his tireless, unpaid research assistant. “Throughout the years she has been the overseer of my social conscience,” he wrote, “pulling me back to reality when she saw that my preoccupation with the abstract aspects of scientific issues had led me to extenuate their deeply human aspects.”
Correction: June 17, 2013
An obituary on Wednesday about the Nobel-winning economist Robert W. Fogel referred incorrectly to his tenure with the University of Chicago. Professor Fogel was on the university’s faculty from 1964 to 1975 and rejoined in 1981; he did not join the university in 1981.