Phyllis Deane

Sadly, my dear friend and long-time colleague, Phyllis Deane, has died. She and I were colleagues in the Cambridge Faculty in the 1960s. She supervised my Part I Trinity Hall pupils in economic history and I supervised her Part II Newnham pupils for the principles and applications papers in Part II. When I returned permanently to Cambridge in 1982 (I had been there on leave in 1972-73 and in 1980), Phyllis had just retired from her Personal Chair. We shared a room together. Shamefully, I cumulatively overflowed, as is my wont, onto her desk and she tactfully withdrew after a few years. I read a number of her later books in draft - I especially remember The State and the Economic System: An Introduction to the History of Political Economy (1989). Peter Kriesler commented to me that the book ‘was excellent in showing how economists’ views on the role of the state and economic policy are strongly tied to their overall economic outlook, to their underlying economic theory. [It emphasised] the fundamental nature of the relationship between theory and policy’. I went in the 1970s to the lectures that became The Evolution of Economic Ideas (1975). For many years, Maurice Dobb had lectured on the history of economic thought and Phyllis’s lectures continued this tradition. I loved Phyllis’s last major book, her biography of J N Keynes, The Life and Times of J Neville Keynes: A Beacon in the Tempest (2001), one of the finest jewels in the crown of our profession. Phyllis much admired Neville Keynes for his integrity, hard work and good sense, like calling to like, I think.

Phyllis was both respected and liked by everyone in Cambridge’s deeply divided Faculty. Her own views were explicit and clear and her fair mindedness and balanced approach were a much needed Godsend. As a result she did far more than her share of committee work in the Faculty.

As a scholar her contributions were highly original, pioneering, and extremely wide ranging — regional development in Africa, using social accounting structures, United Kingdom economic history, the history of economic ideas and institutions. Phyllis was unassuming, never one to blow her own trumpet or fight for a place in the sun. When I told her that Bob Fogel and Doug North had won the Nobel Prize for their contributions to economic history, she was over the moon because, she said, it was at last proper recognition of their and her subject; to which, I add, she had made such major pioneering contributions. For example, part of the citation on Phyllis’s election as the 2010 Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economics Society (USA) states: ‘It is difficult to overestimate the significance of [her best known work, British Economic Growth, 1688-1959: Trends and Structure (1962, written with Max Cole)] in twentieth-century economic history. It represented the foundation of British quantitative economic history and guided and inspired a generation of economic historians.’ In my and that of many others, she should have received the prize herself.

When Nick Crafts’ (1985) celebrated volume with Oxford, British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution, came out, she told me that she was delighted that her much earlier estimates had now been superseded. In what was to prove to be my last conversation with her, I phoned to tell her she had been elected the 2010 Distinguished Fellow. Her comment: ‘How ridiculous!’

Phyllis came to Cambridge in the late 1940s, invited by Dick Stone in the early years of his Directorship of the Department of Applied Economics (1945-55). She worked on regional social accounts. She became a University Lecturer in 1961. She did sterling work as an editor of the Economic Journal (1967-75), working with her great friend and mentor, Austin Robinson, and also with David Champernowne and Brian Reddaway. In my view these were some of the greatest years of the Journal. That the Journal no longer contains either reviews (other than the excellent review articles of outstanding books in the Features issues) or book notes, or even obituaries, is a sad reflection on it not being what it used to be.

Phyllis was beloved by her pupils and her colleagues in Newnham. She followed her pupils' subsequent careers with pride and enjoyment. She was an outgoing and caring person, combining an admirable moral outlook with quiet anger at injustice and/or stupidity, and informed, down-to-earth criticism of economic and social happenings.

Phyllis and Joan Porter, her inseparable companion of over 50 years who was noted for her down-to-earth wisdom, set up a combined home for their aging widowed fathers in Cambridge and continued to live there after their fathers died. Jane Humphries reminded me of the Norwich terriers who guarded the home and grew ‘even more plump on the doggie chocolate drops they earned for shutting the door’. Whenever our mutual friend Mark Perlman visited Cambridge, Joan (Harcourt) and I could be asked to this comfortable home in Stukeley Close for wonderful lunches — traditional British fare served with excellent wines. Conversation would be lively and wide-ranging, with much good natured gossip and anecdotes thrown in, usually from Mark’s encyclopaedic knowledge of what was happening or had happened to whom in our trade, but with plenty of room for others to chip in.

Joan Porter’s death following years of ill health was a great blow to Phyllis — she told me that until it happened she reckoned she had led a charmed life. I don't think she ever fully recovered from it and she gradually withdrew as increasing lameness and age made it more difficult for her to get out. A few years ago Philomena Guillebaud drove me out to visit Phyllis in her last home, Cottenham Court in Cottenham village. We had a pleasant time but it was clear that she was withdrawing. That she died peacefully in her sleep was an appropriate last blessing.

G C Harcourt
University of New South Wales

* A version of this obituary appeared in September in Cambridge Economics, the annual alumni newsletter of the Faculty of Economics.

From issue no. 159, October 2012, pp.19-20

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