Elinor Ostrom, first woman to receive Nobel Prize in economics, dies at 78

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly referred to the institution where Dr. Ostrom worked. It is Indiana University, not the University of Indiana.

Elinor Ostrom, a globe-trotting professor who in 2009 became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, died June 12 at a hospital in Bloomington, Ind. She was 78 and had cancer.

Her death was announced by Indiana University, where Dr. Ostrom had taught and worked for more than four decades in relative obscurity until the Nobel Prize catapulted her to fame.

When Dr. Ostrom came forward as the recipient of the world’s most prestigious award in economics, many scholars were caught unawares — and not only because the so-called dismal science had long been dominated by men. Never trained as an economist, Dr. Ostrom was technically a political scientist.

But even that label inadequately described the elaborate anthropological fieldwork she pursued. Beginning in the 1960s, Dr. Ostrom traipsed across the Los Angeles water basin and the American Midwest, through Swiss pastures and into the villages of Nepal to gather evidence for a theory that few of her contemporaries believed.

In essence, Dr. Ostrom contended that individuals and communities could effectively manage their own collective resources — such as fisheries, forests and water supplies — without the intrusion of government regulation or private industry.

“What we have ignored,” she said after her Nobel Prize was announced, “is what citizens can do . . . as opposed to just having someone in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule.”

For much of Dr. Ostrom’s career, many economists were deeply influenced by the principle of the “tragedy of the commons.” Named for the overgrazing of pastures during the 1800s, the parable suggests that individuals acting in self-interest will ultimately deplete a resource — such as a pasture — that is open to everyone.

Scholars used the parable to demonstrate the need for government regulation or control by private industry. Dr. Ostrom disputed this, pointing to empirical evidence she had gathered around the world to prove that local knowledge, cooperation and enlightened self-interest could be more effective than regulatory leviathans.

“It’s much more fashionable to believe that . . . you can’t trust people to solve their own problems,” said Rick K. Wilson, a professor of political science at Rice University in Texas and a former student of Dr. Ostrom’s.

Dr. Ostrom collected her findings in publications including the book “Governing the Commons” (1990). She described the community collaboration in Los Angeles in the 1960s to prevent seawater from seeping into the city’s freshwater supply. In Nepal, she found that villagers’ rudimentary irrigation systems worked more effectively than high-tech government river dams. The dams, she noted, had made neighborly communication obsolete.

She called upon history, studying 1920s quota agreements among fishermen in Maine, and applied her theories to disciplines outside of ecology. In the Midwest and across the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, she found that small local police departments were more effective than lumbering metropolitan forces.

Dr. Ostrom shared the 2009 Nobel Prize with Oliver E. Williamson, an economist from the University of California at Berkeley who studied how businesses organize themselves and interact. Announcing the award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored the scholars for their “seminal contributions” that “advanced economic governance research from the fringe to the forefront of scientific attention.”

Some economists objected to Dr. Ostrom’s recognition, categorizing her research as social science and not pure economics. Other critics suggested that the award betrayed an overly politically correct, anti-market message from Nobel officials in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Two months before her death, Time magazine named Dr. Ostrom one of the 100 most influential people in the world for her research illuminating how human society might better coexist with nature.

Elinor Claire Awan was born Aug. 7, 1933, in Los Angeles. She was raised in a poor area just outside Beverly Hills — an upbringing that made her acutely aware of the delicate relationships between neighbors. During World War II, the “victory gardens” cultivated to supplement the national food supply taught her the importance of small-scale community action.

A turning point in her life came when her mother convinced school authorities to allow Dr. Ostrom to attend a prestigious school in Beverly Hills rather than the one in her more disadvantaged neighborhood.

In Beverly Hills, teachers pushed Dr. Ostrom academically and also helped her overcome a stutter. She went on to the University of California at Los Angeles, where in 1954 she received a bachelor’s degree in political science.

At UCLA, she also received a master’s degree in 1962 and a doctorate in 1965, both in political science.

An early marriage, to Charles Scott, ended in divorce. Around the time that she completed her studies, she married political scientist Vincent Ostrom and moved to Bloomington, where both found teaching positions at Indiana University.

In 1973, the couple founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, an institute that seeks to pursue “the betterment of humankind” through “the ability of fallible human beings to make decisions, manage resources, and govern themselves.”

Much of her research was conducted through the workshop. She continued working until just before her death. Survivors include her husband, Vincent Ostrom of Bloomington.

“Little by little, bit by bit, family by family,” Dr. Ostrom once told the Indianapolis Star, “so much good can be done on so many levels.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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