Black in the Day…A Nobel First
November 15, 1979:
On this day Sir William Arthur Lewis won the Nobel Prize for economics for his pioneering research on developing nations, the first black person to win a Nobel aside from the peace prize.
Arthur Lewis was born in Castries, Saint Lucia, then still part of the British Windward Islands federal colony, as the fourth of five children of George and Ida Lewis. His parents had migrated from Antigua shortly after the turn of the century. George Lewis died when Arthur turned seven, and Ida raised their five children alone. Arthur was a gifted student and was promoted two classes ahead of his age. After finishing school at the age of 14, Lewis worked as a clerk, while waiting to take his university entrance exam. During this time he became friends with Eric Williams, the future first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and the two remained lifelong friends.
After graduating, Lewis’ initial career choice was to become an engineer. He made the eventual switch to economics because the governments and companies of British Colonies, such as St. Lucia, refused to hire blacks. At the age of 18, he would go on to earn a scholarship to attend the London School of Economics. Not only was this an opportunity for Lewis to study at perhaps the most prestigious University for Economics in the world, but he would also be the first black individual to ever gain acceptance at LSE. While enrolled, Lewis would achieve similar success here as he did in grade in school. Lewis’ academic superiority was noticed and admired by his peers and professors. While at LSE, Lewis had the opportunity to study under the likes of John Hicks, Arnold Plant, Lionel Robbins, and Friedrich Hayek. After gaining his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. degree in 1940 at the London School of Economics (LSE) under supervision of Arnold Plant, Lewis worked as a member of the staff at the LSE until 1948. In 1947, he married Gladys Jacobs, and they had two daughters together.
That year he was selected as a lecturer at the University of Manchester, and moved there with his family. He taught at Manchester until 1957. During this period, he developed some of his most important concepts about the patterns of capital and wages in developing countries. He particularly became known for his contributions to development economics, of great interest as former colonies began to gain independence from European nations.
Lewis served as an Economic advisor to numerous African and Caribbean governments, i.e. Nigeria, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados.
When Ghana gained independence in 1957, its government appointed Lewis as their first economic advisor. He helped draw up its first Five-Year Development Plan (1959–63).
In 1959 Lewis returned to the Caribbean region when appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. In 1963 he was knighted for his contributions to economics.
That year, he was also appointed a University Professor at Princeton University and moved to the United States. Lewis worked at Princeton for the next two decades, teaching generations of students until his retirement in 1983. In 1970 Lewis also was selected as the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank, serving in that capacity until 1973.
Lewis received the Nobel prize in Economics in 1979, sharing it with Theodore Schultz.
He died on 15 June 1991 in Bridgetown, Barbados. He was buried in the grounds of the St Lucian community college named in his honour. He was survived by his wife, Gladys Jacobs, Lady Lewis of Barbados and Princeton, NJ; two daughters, Elizabeth Lewis of Cranbury, NJ, and Barbara Virgil of Brooklyn; and four brothers: Stanley Lewis of Ghana, Earl Lewis of Trinidad, Allen Montgomery Lewis, a former Governor General of St Lucia, and Victor Lewis of St Lucia.
Legacy and honours
- Arthur Lewis Community College, St. Lucia, was named in his honour.
- The Arthur Lewis Building (opened in 2007) at the University of Manchester was named for him, as he had lectured there for several years before entering governmental positions.
- Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at The University of the West Indies.
- Sir Arthur Lewis portrait appears on the 100 dollar East Caribbean Bill.