Jurg Niehans (November 8, 1919 – April 23, 2007)
By Robert Higgs • Friday November 23, 2012 6:33 PM PST •
When I arrived at the Johns Hopkins University to continue my graduate study in the fall of 1966, Jürg Niehans arrived there from Switzerland for an eleven-year stint as a professor in the Department of Political Economy. Because I had already completed a year of graduate work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I only audited the microeconomics course that he taught for the first-year graduate students. I enrolled for credit in his course in advanced macroeconomics.
In addition, in the weekly department seminar, which was attended by all graduate students and all faculty members (an institution that Fritz Machlup had previously established, modeling it on the famous Mises seminar in Vienna that he had attended), I learned from Niehans in the course of each week’s discussion. This seminar always lasted two hours or, as we said, “until the canary dies” (it never did, although it came very close a few times). Because the Hopkins graduate program was so small, having only about 35 students altogether and 10 or 11 faculty members, everybody knew everybody. Even if a student never took a professor’s courses, he still had an opportunity to learn from that professor by virtue of his participation in the seminar.
So, I had many opportunities to learn from Niehans, and I learned a great deal, even in the course that I audited. He was a magnificent teacher—well organized in his lectures, clear in his explanations, patient in bearing with ignorant students (including me), and tireless in his correction of homework assignments and grading of exams, writing extensive notes to show where the student had gone wrong.
He was very “old school” in his European manners and personal conduct. A back slapper he was not. I was in awe of him, yet at the same time I developed a great affection for him, mainly because of his manifest competence, his evident dedication to the field of economics and to good teaching and, perhaps most of all, his long-suffering patience.
For me, attending Hopkins was a joy and an honor. (After all, whereas my fellow students had graduated from good foreign universities or from Ivy League and other upscale schools in the USA, I had graduated from lowly San Francisco State College, and I never doubted that I was playing in the big leagues when in justice I should have been somewhere much lower in the academic pecking order.)
For Niehans as for my other professors at Hopkins, economics was a technical subject. The students learned economic concepts and models—the contents of the economist’s “tool box”—without any preaching one way or another about politics or ideology. Later on, after I had begun my academic career, I would lose my inclination to regard economics as simply a technical subject or as little more than a box of tools. I would discover the value of subjects we had not studied, including private property rights and transaction costs, and I would discover as well the ideas of economists who were never mentioned in my graduate training, including Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.
Nevertheless, I have never regretted that I completed my Ph.D. work at Hopkins, and I have always been glad to honor the memory of the professors who taught me there. Having apprenticed at Hopkins, I was able to begin my academic career at a well-respected university and thus to continue to develop my skills and understanding by working with top-notch colleagues during the fifteen years that I remained there.
Of all my teachers at Hopkins, Niehans will always stand out in my regard. His kindness and dedication were unforgettable. Indeed, when I remember his teaching, I often call to mind the look that would flit over his face when he realized in the midst of a lecture that something he was taking for granted, we students really did not understand at all. For an instant, his face would show ever so slightly a look of pain and disappointment. Then he would say something like, “Let’s back up and make sure we all know what XYZ is and how it works.” After this patient backtracking to help us overcome our own deficiencies, he would proceed as planned, always finishing what he had scheduled for that day’s class.
Jürg Niehans was well respected in the economics profession, and late in his life he was recognized with honors. All of them, and others, were well deserved. After his retirement from teaching, in 1988, he lived in Palo Alto, California, near a son. He died at the age of 87.
May you rest in peace, dear teacher. I will never forget you. It was a privilege and a great good fortune to know you and to learn from you.