Century’s ‘Funniest Professor’ Dies at 97

John K. Galbraith dispensed wit, wisdom from Winthrop House to White House

Longtime Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a popular professor and former Winthrop House resident who has advised five Democratic presidents, died Saturday night at Mount Auburn Hospital. He was 97.

His biographer, Richard Parker, accompanied the Galbraith family at the professor’s bedside when he died of natural causes. “It was time. He lived a life that was more than 20 men’s,” Parker said.

Galbraith joined the University’s economics department as an instructor in 1934, and remained an affiliate of the department for 63 of the next 72 years.

He served as a resident tutor in Winthrop from 1935 to 1937. A student in the House, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. ’38, “became one of my closest friends,” Galbraith later told C-SPAN. Joseph’s younger brother, John F. Kennedy ’40, would appoint Galbraith as ambassador to India in 1961.

Galbraith left Winthrop after his marriage to Catherine M. “Kitty” Atwater in 1937, because Harvard did not allow couples to live in the Houses. He then supplemented his meager $2,750 Harvard salary by teaching introductory economics at Radcliffe, and his wife, a Radcliffe graduate student, worked at Widener Library to keep the couple financially afloat, according to the biography by Parker, who is now a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government.

After Winthrop let Galbraith loose, it was just a short time before the University kicked him out entirely. In 1939, President James Bryant Conant ’14 opted not to renew his contract—a decision that, Parker said, appears to have been politically motivated. Galbraith supported the New Deal at a time when Harvard administrators were wary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, even though he was one of Harvard’s own.

Galbraith taught at Princeton University, served in the Roosevelt administration, and worked as an editor of Fortune magazine. He returned to Harvard in 1948 to lead a study on agricultural marketing.

Conservative members of Harvard’s Board of Overseers sought to block Galbraith from receiving tenure. But this time, Conant took Galbraith’s side, and in 1949, the 41-year-old became a full professor. He purchased a house on Francis Avenue near the Divinity School, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Galbraith launched Harvard’s first course in developmental economics in the early 1950s, according to Parker. And even as he gained prominence as an academic and Democratic Party activist, he continued to engage undergrads at his lunchtime "Economics Table" each Thursday in Winthrop Dining Hall.

Galbraith served as Kennedy’s emissary to India from 1961 to 1963. The professor then turned down an offer to become ambassador to the Soviet Union—in part, according to Parker’s biography, because Harvard’s rules bar professors from taking leave for longer than two years.

Back at Harvard, the iconoclastic economist pushed for more Faculty involvement in University governance.

In a December 1968 essay, he wrote that the members of the Harvard Corporation were marked by a "comparative absence of scientific and scholarly qualification."

Though a critic of the University, he was also a benefactor. In 1967, he anonymously donated all future royalties from his bestselling book, "The Affluent Society," to a fund for students "facing an unexpected crisis in their lives," according to Parker. Galbraith and Harvard administrators understood that the money would be used to fund abortions, Parker said.

Gailbraith donated to the Fogg Art Museum and the economics department as well. But he also fought with his more conservative colleagues. After the department rejected the tenure bids of two left-leaning associate professors, Galbraith—who supported the tenure-seekers—circulated a memo calling for the creation of a breakaway branch of the department that would teach "non-conventional" topics, including Marxism. The proposal never took root.

Galbraith retired in 1975, though he continued to give the opening lecture in the spring semester of Ec 10 for many more years, according to Parker.

The professor also tried his hand as a novelist, telling The Crimson in 1989 that he preferred composing his works of fiction over writing economic studies. He was "the only author I’m aware of who had bestsellers on the fiction and nonfiction lists at the same moment," Parker said.

Galbraith remained a frequent lunchtime presence at the Faculty Club and swam three times a week at Blodgett Pool long after his retirement, according to Parker.

In 1975, the Harvard Lampoon named Galbraith "the funniest professor of the century" and awarded him a $12,000 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, which he later donated to charity. In 2000, President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

LINK: The Crimson chronicles Galbraith's return from a sabbatical in England, April 30, 1971.

EXTERNAL LINK: "The World According to Galbraith"; the economist and his biographer, Richard Parker, at the Institute of Politics (VIDEO), May 9, 2002.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.