economist, Nobel Prize winner
August 05, 1906 - February 05, 1999
Wassily Leontief was a Russian and American economist, the creator of a widely used theory of inter-industry analysis, a Nobel Prize winner in economics in 1973
Wassily Leontief's life began under unusual circumstances and in an unusual family: his wife, Zlata Becker, was the daughter of a well-known Jewish business men from Odessa, Bentzion Becker, and his father, Wassily Leontief, came from a family of “old-believer” Orthodox Christians.
Wassily junior was born in Munich, where the family lived at the time, with his father teaching at a local university, but in all of his official papers he would quote Saint Petersburg as his place of birth, where – in reality – he only grew up and studied. Leontief’s young years were quite uncommon as well: at his mother’s insistence, the boy was home-schooled, by tutors and herself (she was a professional teacher), and, as a result, by the end of the studies.
When he was just 15 – he was fluent in multiple languages and excelled at all the prescribed disciplines. So wide and deep was his knowledge, that he was accepted to the Leningrad University’s school of sociology despite his extremely young age! He graduated the university as a Master of Arts when he was only 19!
Soon after graduating, he joined political circles and became an activist for independence of sciences from the state and for the freedom of speech. As a result, several times he had a cozy talk with investigators from the “Cheka”, the secret police, and in the end, by 1925, decided to leave Soviet Russia. He was allowed to leave for Berlin, but only because the Cheka was convinced Leontief would die soon of inoperable sarcoma he had been diagnosed with. Later it turned out the diagnosis was incorrect.
In 1928 Leontief travelled to China, where he had been invited as an advisor to the Minister of railroads and, using his own system, developed the new scheme for the new Chinese railroad network.
And in 1931 he moved to America, where he became an employee of Wesley Mitchell, the director of the National Bureau of Economic Research. The following year Leontief married the American poet Estelle Marks, who would bring him the daughter Svetlana Alpers, a well-known art critic and a professor at the Berkley University in California. Soon after that he obtained the American citizenship.
When the World War II broke out, Leontief worked as a consultant in economic planning with the US Air Force and created a special matrix of key industrial sites of the Nazi Germany – the matrix used by the US Command to define targets for the strategic bombings that would bring down the German economy.
In 1949 Leontief became the first scientist to use a computer – Harvard Mark II – for mathematical analysis of the American economy, which he, thanks to the contemporary marvel of technology, was able to divide into 500 separate sectors with complex interconnections, described by a huge table of just as complex formulas.
For his scientific work, he was awarded a veritable collection of international awards, including British, French, Japanese and even Soviet! And in 1973 Leontief won the Nobel Prize. Even more, three of his disciples – Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow and Vernon L. Smith – also became the awardees of the most precious prize in the world of science.
He became the author of the Leontief’s Model and the Leontief’s Paradox, and won the admiration of his students for his ability to explain very complex things in very plain terms. Once, when he had to explain the role of state regulatory organs in economy, he simply said: “Economy is a yacht ion the sea. To move, it needs the wind – the customer demand, and to be steered, it needs the rudder – the state control.”
Leontief died in New York at the very respectable age of 93.
Wassily Leontief (1906–1999). The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Library of Economics and Liberty
Svetlana Kaliadina et al., "W.W. Leontief and the Repressions of the 1920s: an Interview", Economic Systems Research, vol.18 (2006)
"Wassily Leontief (1906-1999)". Econlib (Library of Economics and Liberty). 5 May 2014.