William Arthur Lewis Biography

Sir William Arthur Lewis (1915–1991), born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, virtually founded the entire discipline of development economics.

Entering the field of economics when blacks were normally barred from that academic profession, Lewis broke one barrier after another by dint of sheer brilliance. He was the first black professor in Britain's university system, and later the first one at Princeton University in the United States. The Nobel Prize he received in 1979 was the first given to a person of African descent in a field other than literature or peace. Lewis added the voice of a colonial subject to British government policy in his early years, and later in his life he tried to apply his ideas about economic development with on-the-ground consulting posts in Africa. He helped to build the modern university that united the newly independent countries of the Caribbean, and from his socialist youth to his moderate old age he remained a believer in the ideals of Western democracy.

Homeschooling Accelerated Education

The child of two schoolteachers and the fourth of five sons, William Arthur Lewis was born on January 23, 1915, in the small city of Castries, St. Lucia, then part of the British West Indies. (He used the name W. Arthur Lewis professionally.) His parents had emigrated to St. Lucia from Antigua, partly because they believed that their children could get a better education in the British-dominated schools of their new home. When he was seven, Lewis contracted an illness that required him to stay home from school for several weeks. His father took over his education during his convalescence, and when the boy returned to school, he had learned as much in three months as his fellow students were scheduled to cover over the next two years. Lewis was promoted two grades forward and grew up a bookish child with a sense of physical inferiority.

He was also obviously talented academically, as were his siblings—one became a psychiatrist, and two others were top government officials in St. Lucia. Lewis finished school at 14 but had to work in a government office for two years because he was too young to compete for a scholarship to attend a British university. In 1932, when he finally did enter the competition, he won, and set sail the following year to attend the London School of Economics. His aim at the time was to study business administration (management) and prepare himself for a position in private industry or in St. Lucia's colonial government.

Blacks were rare in London at the time. Lewis wrote little about his experiences there, but other Caribbean writers who arrived in England in the 1930s have described strong racial prejudice. Lewis made a trip to Denmark and wrote, according to Robert L. Tignor in W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics , that in place "of the supercilious stare which you got in London, Cardiff, or any of the seaport towns of Britain, you get a smile of welcome." Lewis, studious by nature and nurture, immersed himself in his classes and found himself drawn to the study of economics in particular. He recalled in a lecture given when he received the Nobel Prize that "I had no idea in 1933 what economics was," but he found himself fascinated by such questions as why some countries were rich and others poor, and why steel was expensive but coffee cheap.

Lewis joined the League of Coloured Peoples, a group of black intelligentsia, and began to write articles for its publication, The Keys . He was socialist in orientation and believed that the progress of civilization offered the hope of racial equality. Even early in his career, Lewis was mistrustful of radical viewpoints, particularly those of the Soviet Union, which at the time was held up as a model society by both black and white thinkers of Britain's far left. Lewis graduated from the London School of Economics in 1937 with first class honors and continued on for a Ph.D. in industrial economics. He received that degree in 1940 and worked as a lecturer at the school, and then was given a four-year teaching contract, staying out of World War II due to physical problems.

Refused to Accept Racial Slight

Lewis received glowing recommendations from his mentors, but his application to join the faculty of the University of Liverpool was turned down on what appeared to be racial grounds. He was invited to make several visits so that he could make the acquaintance of people in Liverpool's university and business communities, but declined, writing (according to Tignor) that he did not relish visiting "so that the public may be able to look at me and decide whether they can stand my appearance." Instead, he was hired at the University of Manchester in 1948, becoming Britain's first black university professor. He had married a Grenadian woman, Gladys Jacobs, the year before. The couple raised two daughters and remained together despite what would soon turn into a globetrotting career on Lewis's part.

Lewis's first area of specialty (other than industrial economics, which he abandoned upon joining Manchester's faculty) was the history of the world economy, which he began to study while he was still at the London School of Economics. The school's acting economics department chairman, Frederick Hayek, suggested that Lewis teach a course on the economics of the period between World War I and World War II. "I replied to Hayek that I did not know what happened between the wars; to which he replied that the best way of learning a subject was to teach it," Lewis recalled in his Nobel Prize speech. The result was the first in an influential series of 12 books by Lewis; Economic Survey, 1919–38 was published in London in 1949.

At the time, although he had begun to read widely in economic history, Lewis had no special expertise in the economics of the developing world. The topic was not a part of formal economics curricula at the time, for what was called the developing world had until the post-World War II years been largely under European colonial control. But Lewis was motivated by demographic changes in British education to try to investigate the economic lives of people in the former colonies. "It was the throng of Asian and African students at Manchester that set me lecturing systematically on development economics from about 1950, following Hayek's rule that the way to learn is to teach," he said in his Nobel Prize autobiography.

Lewis believed that several conditions were necessary in order for industrial development to come to an agrarian society. But one, which he called unlimited supplies of labor, was key. The Industrial Revolution in England, he reasoned, had depended upon the existence of a large class of unemployed farm laborers, themselves the product of changes and new efficiencies in British agriculture. Developing economies, Lewis reasoned, worked the same way; the profits of industrial companies rose while wages remained depressed. Lewis's model explained persistent poverty in the developing world, and he also investigated trade between wealthy and poor countries, using the model of trade involving coffee and steel that had fascinated him when he began to study economics.

Pioneered Field of Development Economics

Lewis summarized his ideas in 1954 in a short article, "Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour," which was published in a journal called Manchester School . He expanded on his thesis in a book, The Theory of Economic Growth , which appeared the following year. The original article, noted Tignor, was "short, well written, easy to understand, original, and self-evident, at least to nonspecialists." For economists it was even more: it broke new ground in a field that had been little studied, and it provided hypotheses that could be modeled and tested. Lewis had supporters and detractors in the years after the article appeared, but no one doubted its influence. It was for his 1954 article that Lewis received the Nobel Prize in 1979.

Remaining at Manchester until 1958, Lewis also worked with several governments in the developing world in an attempt to put his ideas into practice. His most prominent post was as an adviser to Ghana's prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, for a two-year stint shortly after Ghana gained its independence in 1957. Lewis found his prudent plans overruled as factional conflicts began to come to the fore in Ghana, and he finally resigned, writing to a friend (as quoted by Tignor) that "I have taken nearly as much as I can stand. In the first place, the Prime Minister has messed up the Development Plan by insisting on spending lavishly on unnecessary projects, mostly in Accra [Ghana's capital], and by pushing up the total to an unrealistic level." Lewis then moved back to the Caribbean to become principal (president) of University College at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1959. In 1962 and 1963 he also served as vice chancellor of the university.

The University of the West Indies, a cooperative project among several of the Caribbean's small island nations, grew during Lewis's tenure there, with enrollment increasing from about 700 to over 2,000 students. He established a new engineering school and obtained funding for it from international agencies. Once again, however, Lewis was frustrated by bureaucratic infighting, this time among the university's national sponsors. Suffering from stomach ulcers, he wrote (according to Tignor) to Princess Alice, the university's chancellor, that his condition was caused by "excessive stress and strain on this job for which I am ill-fitted by temperament. I take things too seriously, worry too much, and cannot stand the strain. I must therefore resign."

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1963, Lewis took a post that year teaching at Princeton University in New Jersey. He remained there for the rest of his life, writing several more books about development and the world economy. In the late 1960s Lewis served as mentor to younger black scholars but was critical of the movement toward African-American militancy. He opposed the creation of black studies departments, but backed the inclusion of African-centered materials in the university curriculum. The black student, he wrote (as quoted by Tignor), should study "engineering, medicine, chemistry, economics, law, agriculture, and other subjects, which are going to be of value to him and his people. And let the clever whites go to college to read black novels, to read Swahili, and to record the exploits of Negro heroes of the past. They are the ones to whom this will come as an eye-opener." From 1971 to 1973 Lewis took a leave from Princeton to serve as the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank.

An anthology of Lewis's works, Selected Economic Writings of W. Arthur Lewis , appeared in 1983. In 1985 he made a visit to St. Lucia, where the Morne Educational Complex was renamed the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. Lewis retired to a home in Barbados, where he died on June 15, 1991. His body was flown back to St. Lucia and buried there.


Tignor, Robert L. W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics , Princeton University Press, 2006.


Jet , November 20, 2000.

Times (London, England), June 17, 1991.


Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2007, reproduced in Biography Resource Center , Thomson Gale, 2007, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 24, 2007).

"Sir Arthur Lewis: Autobiography," Nobel Prize Committee, http://nobelprize.org (January 24, 2007).

"Sir Arthur Lewis, 1915–1991," http:www.stlucianobellaureates.org/arthur_lewis.htm (January 24, 2007).

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