Family members, friends and admirers gathered to pay tribute to Paul Samuelson during a memorial service on Saturday at MIT, where the legendary economist was recalled as a man of kindness, unyielding good humor and boundless intellectual curiosity.
Several hundred people attended the service in honor of Samuelson, a singular figure in 20th-century economics whose work reshaped the subject into a highly rigorous, mathematical discipline, and whose energy and renown quickly helped build one of the world’s leading economics departments after his arrival at MIT in 1940.
“He achieved that stature and transformed his field in a way that I think of as quintessentially MIT,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield at the service. “He entered a discipline that was largely descriptive and he used the tools of mathematics to make it rigorous, coherent, and predictive. In his commitment to both the research and teaching of economics, he embodied an MIT ideal.”
Moreover, as Hockfield noted, “His warmth, wit and humility shaped the collaborative culture that became the department’s signature.”
Samuelson died in December, at the age of 94. His PhD thesis, published as Foundations of Economic Analysis, became a transformative work, while his book Economics, first published in 1948, is the best-selling textbook of all time in the field. In 1947, Samuelson was awarded the first-ever John Bates Clark Medal by the American Economic Association, now given annually to the best economist under the age of 40; in 1970, he was awarded the second-ever Nobel Prize in economics.
Robert Solow: ‘We all had an office next to Paul’
Samuelson’s great friend and colleague, Robert Solow, served as master of ceremonies for the event, and shared a variety of reflections. For nearly 60 years, Solow occupied an office next door to Samuelson’s, engendering decades of intellectual collaboration and bonhomie.
“We talked about what was happening in economics, the economy, what was happening at home,” said Solow. And yet, he said, Samuelson’s sociability was such that “in a sense, we all had an office next to Paul.” Samuelson, he noted, would say that “you could argue whether MIT was the best economics department in the world, but there could be no doubt it was the happiest department in the world.”
A principal reason for that, Solow said, is that Samuelson insisted on being treated as just one member of the faculty among equals. “Nobody was pulling rank” at MIT, said Solow, himself a Nobel laureate. “You would have needed an impossible amount of chutzpah to act like a prima donna if Paul Samuelson were your colleague, and he was clearly not acting like a prima donna.”
Even in recent years, Samuelson’s sociable and intellectual qualities shone through at events like the department’s weekly lunches, noted Ricardo Caballero PhD ’88, Ford International Professor of Economics at MIT and the current chair of the department. Several years ago, Caballero was so inspired by the then-octogenarian Samuelson’s remarks on mathematical analysis one day at lunch, he simply took the rest of the day off to savor the experience: “I drove home in complete awe.”
“He will remain forever our beacon of intellectual life,” said Caballero. “This is his department and nothing can change that.”
Samuelson had “an absolute refusal to use authority rather than reason,” added Stanley Fischer PhD ’69, the former MIT economist who is now governor of the Bank of Israel. “He treated his students as fellow economists, rather than as potential future disciples.”
One of Paul Samuelson’s sons, William Samuelson, now a professor of business policy and law at Boston University, spoke on behalf of his family. He recalled Paul Samuelson as a caring father whose mind seemed almost constantly in motion; he “usually carried a yellow legal pad and jotted notes and theories in odd places.”
That intellectual activity, said William Samuelson, was made possible by the level of personal comfort his father felt at MIT: “How much less would he have accomplished any place else? A lot less. How much less happy would he have been any place else? A lot less.”
Ace … in economics
Paul Samuelson’s nephew, Lawrence Summers ’75, the former U.S. Treasury secretary who is now director of the National Economic Council at the White House, spoke of the power Samuelson’s ideas have had on government policy, noting that Samuelson’s work was known to presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.
“Paul took pride in saying he never spent more than three consecutive nights in Washington,” said Summers. “But his record of influence was unmatched.” Yet attaining that recognition, Summers added, was not what drove Samuelson. “Anyone who knew Paul knew he didn’t live for the notoriety,” Summers said. “He lived professionally for his scholarship.”
Summers also aired a series of personal reflections about Samuelson.
“Paul was a bracing and yet a generous uncle,” said Summers, recalling being stumped as a child by Samuelson’s questions about how temperature is measured.
“Nobody punctured pomposity better or more definitively than he did,” said Summers. “But he also knew about comforting the afflicted.”
When Summers was suffering from a serious illness, he recollected, Samuelson helped him rehabilitate by playing tennis with him. Samuelson took up tennis in his 40s, playing near his home in Belmont, and his aptitude for the sport served as the source of a few good-natured remarks during the service. “It’s not true that Paul did everything extraordinarily well,” Summers joked.
Moreover, Solow added later, when Newsweek magazine once profiled Samuelson, it described him as an “amusing lecturer and fine tennis player.” However, Solow noted, MIT economist Cary Brown quipped at the time that the magazine had things backward: “He was a fine lecturer and an amusing tennis player.”
Playful and accessible
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman PhD ’77, who shared a three-person office suite with Samuelson and Solow for years as an MIT faculty member, recalled the first time he studied Samuelson’s persona in depth: For an annual graduate student-faculty skit night in the 1970s, Krugman noted, he had to play Samuelson in a sketch, and so spent time honing an imitation of Samuelson’s walk (which Krugman briefly demonstrated for the audience on Saturday).
The good humor and cheer Samuelson created, Krugman claimed, was actually an essential part of his working style, helping him produce seminal works in trade, the government provision of public goods, consumer preferences, finance and more. “The greatest economist of the century did not take himself too seriously,” said Krugman. “He was informal, conversational and always, always intellectually playful, eager to try out new ideas and other people’s points of view. That same spirit very much informed his work, and made it possible.”
Still, it was a struggle at times for Samuelson’s work to become accepted, noted James Poterba, MIT’s Mitsui Professor of Economics and a former department chair, precisely because Samuelson was creating “a scientific revolution in economics.” Even into the 1950s, Poterba noted, quoting examples from the archives, reviewers at journals were skeptical of Samuelson’s mathematical inclinations. “But history has proven him right,” said Poterba.
Samuelson’s influence also extended into the worlds of investment and trading; Helmut Weymar ’58, PhD ’65, the former president of the trading firm Commodities Corp., spoke about how he used insights gleaned from his time as an MIT student to devise pioneering trading techniques. And yet, Weymar said, he never would have been accepted as a graduate student at MIT except that Samuelson took a special interest in his studies. “As gods go, Paul was remarkably accessible,” said Weymar.
A portrait of Samuelson, painted by the artist Richard Whitney, was unveiled near the end of the event; Samuelson’s wife Risha has donated the painting to the Department of Economics, where it will hang. A string quartet of current and former MIT students also played at the service.
“Having had Paul as a best friend for over 60 years was an extraordinarily important part of my life,” reflected Solow, concluding the service. “You might think that 60 years was a lot, but I, and we, could have used a few more.”