Biography and History

Sir W. Arthur Lewis (1915-1991) was a pioneer in the field of economic development and a leading authority on economic growth in developing countries and associated political and social changes. He was a professor at the University of Manchester and Princeton University and served as an advisor to several governments. Lewis, who was from the Caribbean, also broke through racial barriers in the academic world throughout his career.

William Arthur Lewis was born on January 23, 1915 on the island of St. Lucia, in the Caribbean. He was the fourth of five sons born to George F. and Ida (Barton) Lewis. Both of his parents were school teachers who had immigrated to St. Lucia from Antigua. Lewis married Gladys I. Jacobs, from Grenada, in 1947. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Barbara.

Lewis won the highly competitive St. Lucia Government Scholarship in 1932, which permitted him to attend any British university. He wished to become an engineer, but knew discrimination would prevent him from finding employment. Instead, he enrolled in the Bachelor of Commerce degree program in 1933 at the London School of Economics, with the intention of returning to St. Lucia and obtaining employment in the municipal service or private trade. A portion of the degree coursework included economics classes, in which he excelled. When he graduated with his B.Com degree in 1937, the London School of Economics awarded him a scholarship to study for a Ph.D. in economics, which he received in 1940. He was appointed to a one-year teaching assistantship in 1938. In 1939, he became an assistant lecturer, a position he held until 1948. He was the first black faculty member at the school.

At the London School of Economics, Lewis's mentor was Professor Sir Arnold Plant, a specialist in British industry. As a consequence, the first phase of Lewis's research career concentrated on industrial development, an area in which he continued teaching and writing until he left the London School of Economics. In 1945, the Acting Chairman of the Economics Department, Frederick Hayek, asked Lewis to develop a course on the economy between the two world wars. As a consequence, Lewis also began to change his research interests from industrial development to the study of the history of the world economy from the middle of the nineteenth century. While at the London School of Economics, Lewis also became involved in service to the British government. He was Principal of the Board of Trade in 1943, advised the British Colonial Office on economic issues in 1944, and was a member of the Colonial Economic Advisory Council from 1945 to 1949.

Lewis moved to the University of Manchester in 1948, accepting the position of the Stanley Jevons Professor of Political Economy and becoming the first black professor at a British university. He remained there until 1958. While at Manchester, Lewis developed his expertise in economic development, which stemmed from his views on British colonialism. Lewis began teaching economic development regularly after 1950, in part due to the demand from the large number of students from developing countries who wanted to learn about the economies of their nations. For the rest of his career, Lewis focused on the study of economic development and continued to study the history of the world economy.

While at the University of Manchester, Lewis undertook the majority of his overseas consulting projects. His first was in 1949, as an economic consultant to the Caribbean Commission to study land settlement in British Guiana and industrial development in Puerto Rico and the British West Indies. From 1950 to 1952, Lewis was director of the Colonial Development Corporation in the United Kingdom, and from 1951 to 1952 he was on the Departmental Committee on Fuel and Power, also in the United Kingdom. In 1951, Lewis was a member of the United Nations Group of Experts on Under-Developed Countries. He was a consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and Far East in 1955, and Deputy Managing Director of the United Nations Special Fund from 1959 to 1960.

Lewis also traveled to Africa on several occasions during this time. He was a consultant to the Gold Coast in 1953, reporting on industrialization and the Volta River Dam Project, and also served as a consultant to the Western Nigeria government in 1955. He returned to Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) after the country became independent, serving as economic adviser to the Prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, from 1957 to 1958, under the auspices of the United Nations. Lewis's role was to conduct a review of Ghana's economic and financial policies and to provide advice to government officials.

In 1959, Lewis left Ghana and the University of Manchester to become the Principal of the University College of the West Indies, located in Jamaica, which was then affiliated with the University of London. In 1962, the university became an independent entity and was renamed the University of the West Indies. At that time, Lewis became the Vice-Chancellor of the university, a position he held until 1963. During his term, he widened the contacts between the community and the university, broadened the base of undergraduate recruitment, introduced new programs, and increased the number of students at the university.

Lewis also served as the Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of the West Indies from 1961 to 1962. During 1962, he took a brief leave of absence from the University of the West Indies to focus his efforts on preserving the Federation of the West Indies, which he believed was critical for maintaining meaningful political independence and economic growth in the West Indies. Despite his work, the Federation was dissolved that year. Lewis was also the Director of the Central Bank of Jamaica from 1961 to 1962, and the Director of the Industrial Development Corporation in Jamaica from 1962 to 1963.

Lewis returned to academia in 1963 as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, with a joint appointment in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department. Lewis was the James Madison Professor of Political Economy from 1968 to 1982 and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Economics and International Affairs from 1982 to 1983, when he retired and became professor emeritus. While at Princeton, Lewis taught undergraduate and graduate courses in economic development and modern economic history. He was also the first director, in 1967, of Princeton's interdisciplinary Research Program in Economic Development at the Woodrow Wilson School. During his career at Princeton, Lewis only took one leave of absence, to serve as a founder and the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank from 1970 to 1973. He also served as Chancellor of the University of Guyana from 1967 to 1973. It was an honorary position, for which he presided over the Council of the University and awarded degrees to graduates.

Lewis was a prolific author, publishing twelve books and more than eighty monographs and articles. His important works include "Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour," ( Manchester Studies, 1954) and Theory of Economic Growth (1955), one of the first academic works written about economic development and considered a classic in its field. His other important works include Principles of Economic Planning (1949), Economic Survey, 1918-1939 (1949), Overhead Costs (1950), Development Planning (1966), Politics in West Africa (1966), Tropical Development, 1880-1913 (1971), and Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913 (1978).

Lewis held leadership positions in a number of professional associations. He was president of the Manchester Statistical Society in 1956 and president of the Economic Society of Ghana in 1958. In the American Economic Association, Lewis was vice-president in 1965, elected Distinguished Fellow in 1969, and president in 1983. He was a member, fellow, or honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Geographical Society, American Philosophical Society, British Academy, Council of the Royal Economic Society, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Weizmann Institute. Lewis received honorary degrees from more than thirty institutions world-wide and was made a Knight Bachelor in 1963 by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain for his service at the University of the West Indies. In 1979, Lewis was the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, sharing the prize with Theodore W. Schultz of the University of Chicago. They were honored for their pioneering research into economic development, especially with regards to the problems of developing countries. Lewis was the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Prize for a field other than the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sir W. Arthur Lewis passed away in 1991 at his home in Barbados, at the age of 76.

Source: From the finding aid for MC092

  • W. Arthur Lewis Papers. 1892-1990 (inclusive), 1950-1990 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC092

    Sir W. Arthur Lewis (1915-1991) was a pioneer in the field of economic development and a leading authority on economic growth in developing countries and associated political and social changes. He was a professor at the University of Manchester and Princeton University and served as an advisor to several governments. Lewis, who was from the Caribbean, also broke through racial barriers in the academic world throughout his career. Lewis's papers document his career as a scholar and as an economic advisor and include his professional correspondence, meeting minutes, reports, and writings.

  • W. Arthur Lewis Papers. 1892-1990 (inclusive), 1950-1990 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC092

    Sir W. Arthur Lewis (1915-1991) was a pioneer in the field of economic development and a leading authority on economic growth in developing countries and associated political and social changes. He was a professor at the University of Manchester and Princeton University and served as an advisor to several governments. Lewis, who was from the Caribbean, also broke through racial barriers in the academic world throughout his career. Lewis's papers document his career as a scholar and as an economic advisor and include his professional correspondence, meeting minutes, reports, and writings.