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May 11, 2006

Obituary: Mark Perlman

Emeritus University Professor Mark Perlman, who was among his generation’s most accomplished economists, died May 3, 2006, following a short illness. He was 82.

The son of famous economist Selig Perlman, the Madison, Wis., native, entered the University of Wisconsin in 1941. He interrupted his education to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II. He returned to Wisconsin in 1946, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1947. He earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1950.

Following an academic year as an instructor at Princeton University, Perlman held faculty positions at the University of Hawaii (1951), Cornell University (1952-1954) and Johns Hopkins University (1955-1961). He came to Pitt as a professor of economics in 1961, served as department chair 1965-1970 and was named a University Professor in 1968 for his significant contributions to more than one discipline: economics, history and the economics of public health. He retired from Pitt in 1993 as an emeritus professor.

Perlman first specialized in labor economics and industrial relations, doing comprehensive, scholarly work on American and Australian institutions. Later he worked in public health, demographic economics and the history of economic thought. He authored more than 40 books on these subjects.

“Mark Perlman was the consummate academic. He was a dedicated teacher, a prolific scholar and editor of great repute,” said colleague and friend Steven Husted, professor of economics at Pitt. Best known for his year-long honors sequence in the “History of Economic Thought,” Perlman was a demanding teacher, Husted said.

“He distributed extensive sets of typed notes on each topic prior to it coming up in class so that students could focus on discussion rather than spending their time taking notes,” he said. “He insisted that they write term papers and then required that they come to his office to discuss their work. As such he got to know all of his students very well.”

Perlman was among the last Pitt faculty members to be covered by mandatory age-70 retirement rules of the early 1990s, Husted noted.

“At the time that he retired I thought that it would be very hard for Mark to walk away from the classroom. I was wrong,” he said.

Instead, Perlman directed his abundance of energy to scholarship, publishing a variety of articles and several books, including an extensive history of the American university system.

“He continued to work with current and former students until shortly before his death. Indeed, he chaired a dissertation committee in 2005,” Husted said.

Long-time friend and colleague Gordon K. MacLeod, emeritus professor in the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and the School of Medicine, said, “In the discipline of economics, Mark Perlman ranks among the giants. Mark was someone willing to work with other disciplines and had an incomparable breadth of experience in the field of economics.”

The two collaborated with other Pitt faculty to hold the first national conference of its kind on health care capital, MacLeod said. They also collaborated on writing and co-editing the first book ever written on that subject, he said.

Perlman also was instrumental in establishing in 1981 Pitt’s Health Policy Institute, part of GSPH. “Along the way Mark hosted frequent dinner parties at his home where a variety of academics from many disciplines engaged in stimulating conversation,” MacLeod said. “If there were an American peerage for professors, Mark would warrant elevation to that level of academic aristocracy.”

In a 2000 autobiographical essay written for “Exemplary Economists, Vol. I,” Perlman wrote that the social turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s and its accompanying changes in the academic environment made him at times feel like a loner in the Pitt community as he longed for the intellectual-oriented socializing among faculty and students of earlier eras.

“The government of universities became increasingly a product of efficiency-administrators, usually persons with little remaining interest in their own personal scholarship and with virtually no interest in concentrating on the internal problems of attracting students’ attention toward becoming part of a broad based-local intellectual community,” Perlman wrote.

But his reflections were not all pessimistic. He further wrote: “One could not have feared the outcome of World War II as all of us in the 1930s and 1940s did and be a disappointed man. The gates of academe were opened to Jews in a way that I had never anticipated. The changes in salary structures for professors since 1958 have been so unimaginably generous that I can only feel lucky beyond belief. The opportunities given to me to found journals, to lecture all over the world and to teach able, hard-working and grateful students have exceeded any dreams that I may have had.

“Most of all, the numerous times that I have met great teachers and learned from them was not possible in earlier epochs when transportation was slow and costly,” he concluded in the 2000 essay.

Perlman founded the Journal of Economic Literature and was managing editor of the publication from 1968 to 1981. In 1989 he founded the Journal of Evolutionary Economics. He also was a member of the editorial boards of Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Surveys of Economic Literature, the Joseph A. Schumpeter Intellectual Society journal and the Quarterly Journal of Business and Economics, among others.

Perlman was a member of a number of academic professional organizations, including the American Economic Association, the Royal Economic Society, the Economic History Association, the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, the American Jewish Historical Association and the National Association of Scholars.

During his career he earned a number of fellowships including from the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the University of Cambridge, U.K.

Perlman is survived by his wife Naomi Waxman Perlman; daughter Abigail Williams; sisters Eva Silversmith and Rachel Cohen; grandchildren David, Justin, Daniel and Alexandra Williams, and nieces and nephews.

Memorial contributions may be made to Assisted Living at Weinberg Village, 300 JHF Drive, Pittsburgh 15217.

A campus memorial service for Perlman is being planned.

—Peter Hart

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