07 Nov 2012
HBS Professor Thomas K. McCraw, Sr., Dies at 72
Noted business historian won Pulitzer Prize in 1985
ShareBar
Thomas K. McCraw

BOSTON—Thomas K. McCraw, Senior, a renowned and much honored Harvard Business School historian, teacher, and author, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his book Prophets of Regulation and who played an important role in making business history more influential and accessible in the broader fields of history and management, died on Saturday, Nov. 3, in Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., after a long illness. He was 72.

McCraw retired from the active HBS faculty in 2006. At the time of his death, he was the School's Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, Emeritus. He was also the former editor of the Business History Review, a quarterly journal of research published by Harvard Business School.

"Tom McCraw was an extraordinarily insightful and influential historian who won acclaim both on this campus and around the globe," said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria. "His work will influence students and scholars for generations to come. Tom was the personification of the phrase ‘a scholar and a gentleman,’ and he will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him at Harvard Business School as a friend, colleague, or teacher."

McCraw joined the Harvard Business School faculty as a visiting associate professor in 1976, when he became a colleague and protégé of the late Professor Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., the great historian of American and global big businesses and organizations. Chandler was recruiting a group of young historians, including Richard S. Tedlow, now the School's Class of 1949 Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, and Richard H. K. Vietor, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, to make HBS the center of research in business history.

The group also became known for its excellence and innovations in the classroom, including the creation of a required first-year MBA course called Creating Modern Capitalism, an effort McCraw led and for which he edited an accompanying case book (published in 1997) titled Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions.

McCraw was also a major contributor to the popular second-year elective course The Coming of Managerial Capitalism, which became one of the School’s most heavily subscribed electives, enrolling between 300 and 400 students annually. In addition, he taught in the multidisciplinary course Business, Government, and the International Economy (BGIE), a required first-year MBA course he headed for several years. In 1984 he also took charge of the School's Research Seminar in Business History, which convened doctoral students and faculty members from across Harvard University and other institutions to discuss topics of interest and provide a sounding board for new research, and built it into a world-class seminar involving many of the most important business historians in the world.

During his career, McCraw taught, advised, and was beloved by thousands of Harvard Business School MBA candidates. He also worked with and mentored many doctoral students who went on to join the faculties of universities around the world and make their own mark in the field of business history.

According to Geoffrey G. Jones, the current incumbent of the Straus professorship and faculty chair of the School’s Business History Initiative, "Tom was a true leader and institution builder, who strove courageously and selflessly to create and sustain the big picture. A prolific and lucid author, he repeatedly made the case that history matters to the concerns of today. He was a master of using biography to deepen understanding of highly complex issues, but he was also a remarkable synthesizer, a skill he employed to pioneer the teaching of global business history in the 1990s. Charismatic, brilliant, and generous, Tom inspired generations of colleagues and students. In that regard, I speak from personal experience as well. He recruited me to join the HBS faculty from my university position in England. He was my mentor and my role model, and I will miss him terribly."

"Tom was a born leader and luminous figure on the Business School campus," said Professor Tedlow. "He excelled in all the roles that an HBS professor is called upon to perform: scholar, teacher, administrator, and mentor. He also did a great many things for which one receives little credit, but which are very important. He was, for example, an outstanding editor. In everything he did, Tom held himself to the highest standards. His books are masterworks of research, beautifully written, and crafted with an unmatched aesthetic sense."

In his early work, McCraw combined his knowledge of history and public policy to provide a long-term perspective on issues raised by business and government relations. In an influential series of books and articles, he analyzed the rise of economic regulation in the United States in the last two centuries and explored how government policies affected competitiveness.

As McCraw saw it, "Too much government regulation can kill a company, an industry, and even a national economy — but so can too little. Successful capitalism requires the persistent encouragement of private entrepreneurship, but also constant public monitoring to ensure that the system does not spin out of control."

He believed that a "foundational truth about capitalism is that no industry can regulate itself. The pressures for innovation and profit are simply too great — and never more so than in the present era of global capitalism."

McCraw frequently used intellectual history as a compelling avenue for research, examining events through the lives of people who influenced them. In Prophets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis, and Alfred E. Kahn (1984), which won not only the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1985 and but also the triennial Thomas Newcomen Award for the Best Book on Business History, McCraw told the stories of four powerful men who sought to define and implement economic regulation in twentieth-century America.

"With that book, Tom took the fields of economics and institutionalism and wedded them through the vehicle of biography," said Professor Vietor. "In the process, he put the topic of economic regulation and its institutional impact on the table for the historian."

Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, published in 2007, is a biography of one of the most significant economists and business theorists of the past century, Harvard University professor Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883-1950). The book chronicles Schumpeter's tumultuous life spanning two world wars, the Great Depression, and the early Cold War, drawing on his vast writings, including private diaries and letters never before used. As the book explains, Schumpeter regarded "creative destruction" as the driving force of capitalism, since nearly all businesses fail because they are victims of innovation by their competitors. To survive, businesspeople must be entrepreneurial and think strategically. In Schumpeter's view, the general prosperity produced by the "capitalist engine" far outweighs the wreckage it leaves behind.

Prophet of Innovation, which has been translated into six languages, also won numerous prizes, including the Hagley Prize for Best Book on Business History, the Joseph J. Spengler Prize for the Best Book on the History of Economics, the biennial Prize for Research on Innovation given by the International Joseph A. Schumpeter Society, and the Alfred and Fay Chandler Book Award in Business History.

McCraw's most recent book, The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy, was published just a few weeks ago by Harvard University Press. This volume is the first to tell the story of how several foreign-born financial specialists, including Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, solved the fiscal crisis facing the newly-created United States of America after the Revolution, when the new country was bankrupt and without the power to tax. In addition, these immigrants set the US on a path to long–term economic success. Writing in an oped article that appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 2, McCraw noted that "Innovations by the blended population of native-born Americans and immigrants were, and still are, integral to the economic growth of the United States."

Among McCraw's other works were American Business Since 1920: How It Worked, which first appeared in 2000, with a second edition following in 2009. Frequently used as a required text in colleges and universities, it analyzes the people who led major American companies, including Amazon, Boeing, eBay, Ford, General Motors, Google, McDonald's, and Procter & Gamble — all of which began as entrepreneurial ventures.

In 1986, McCraw contributed to and edited America Versus Japan: A Comparative Study of Business-Government Relations, which explores the ideas, policies, and outcomes connected with competition between the US and Japan, which at that time seemed poised to surpass this country as the world's premier economic superpower.

The vast body of McCraw's influential work also comprises numerous case studies, book chapters, journal articles, and edited volumes such as The Intellectual Venture Capitalist: John H. McArthur and the Work of the Harvard Business School, 1980 – 1995 (coedited by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and published in 1999), which focuses on the pioneering and multidisciplinary research conducted at HBS under the leadership of Dean McArthur. In 1988 he edited and wrote the introduction for The Essential Alfred Chandler: Essays Toward a Historical Theory of Big Business, an homage to his mentor, long regarded as the world's most influential business historian.

At the time of his death, McCraw was preparing to write another book that he planned to publish in 2015, covering ten industries and important entrepreneurs who had come to the United States from other lands. Several related journal articles were also on his research agenda.

According to HBS historian Nancy F. Koehn, the School's James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration, "Tom was a man of keen strategic insight and organizational understanding, who was also gifted with literary grace and consistent attention to the written word. His corpus of world-class books, cases, and articles not only greatly expanded our understanding of economic thought and policy making but inspired countless students of history interested in practicing their craft with care and thoughtfulness."

In his introduction to The Essential Alfred Chandler, McCraw wrote, "From the beginning of his career, Chandler's primary motivation has been an abiding...intellectual curiosity. Even after many years as a business historian, he retains a youthful excitability, an infectious enthusiasm about the latest item he has read or piece of evidence he has uncovered." The same could be said about McCraw until the very end of his life.

"Through his work, Tom showed the importance of history and biography in understanding how economies functioned," said Lecturer of Business Administration Walter A. Friedman, the current editor of Business History Review. "Human imagination and creativity were essential themes, whether he was explaining Schumpeter's Theory of Economic Development or the franchise system of McDonald's."

Thomas Kincaid McCraw was born September 11, 1940, in Corinth, Mississippi. The son of an engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), he grew up near several dam and power plant construction sites in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Witnessing firsthand the people, events, and places that shaped the history of the TVA — one of the broadest reform programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal — influenced McCraw's decision to study business history.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1962 from the University of Mississippi, which he attended on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship, and serving four years as an officer in the US Navy, McCraw earned a master's degree and PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin. Two books on the TVA resulted from his graduate work at Wisconsin — TVA and the Power Fight, 1933-1939, published in 1971, and Morgan versus Lilienthal: The Feud Within the TVA (1970), which won the William P. Lyons Award.

McCraw began his academic career as a professor in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, but came to Harvard Business School in 1973-74 on a Harvard-Newcomen Fellowship in Business History. He returned in 1976 for a two-year appointment as a Visiting Associate Professor and was named a full professor with tenure in 1978. He became the Straus professor in 1989.

During his HBS career, he also held several administrative positions, including Director of Research, head of two required first-year courses, and chair and co-chair, from 1986 to 1997, of the Business, Government, and the International Economy Unit.

As a teacher, McCraw relished creating "tumult and controversy" in the classroom to galvanize students around the case study under consideration. "The whole phenomenon of case-method teaching motivates instructors as well as well as students," McCraw once wrote. "It encourages them to anticipate every possible direction the discussion might take and therefore stimulates their imagination."

McCraw was president (1989-90) and a trustee of the Business History Conference (the US society for business history), which at its 2009 meeting in Milan presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award for scholarship. He served as editor and co-editor of the Business History Review from 1994 to 2004 and was also on the Board of Syndics of Harvard University Press and on the editorial advisory boards of Reviews in American History and Harvard Business Review. In 1996 he was associate editor of The Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century.

He was member of the council of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the advisory board of the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo.

An avid Boston Celtics fan, McCraw shared season tickets for many years with a number of other HBS faculty members. A chronically bad back, however, forced him to take in HBS faculty meetings lying on his back on a portable chaise longue that he carried into the room with him. To write, he often sought the peace and quiet offered by the second home the family owned in Bermuda.

McCraw is survived by his wife of 50 years, Susan (Morehead) of Belmont, Mass.; two grown children, Elizabeth McCarron of Wellesley, Mass., and Thomas, Jr., of Bedford, New Hampshire; three grandchildren; and a brother, John C. McCraw of Gainsville, Florida. Another daughter, Carey, predeceased him in 1970.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Prof. McCraw's memory can be sent to the Belmont Library Foundation, P.O. Box 125, Belmont, MA 02478.

Contacts

Jim Aisner
617-495-6157
jaisner+hbs.edu