ARTHUR F. BURNS was a one-man economic institution. Throughout his long life he carried the manner of the professor that he had once been, but his shrewd political judgment -- and an abiding devotion to public service -- led him through a career of three decades at the highest levels of the government. The students to whom he lectured included three presidents. He had a starchy academic air, but in Washington infighting he was -- in the words of another master, Henry Kissinger -- "as cagey as a tree full of owls."

He performed one early service, and an important one, in persuading President Eisenhower to retain the recently established Council of Economic Advisers, and as chairman of it for 3 1/2 years, he redefined the job as not a public advocate but the president's private adviser -- and occasionally tutor. His purpose was to put the results of research and scholarship to work in the political enterprise of steering the economy, and he stayed at that work into the turbulent years of oil shortages and inflation in the 1970s.

As chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1970 to 1978, he struggled with the long and painful inflation generated by the Vietnam War. He was accused of having deliberately let the money supply soar and aggravated inflation to help Mr. Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972. The emerging consensus among historians is that the charge is false. In retrospect, it seems clear that, pressed by the White House, by congressional Democrats and even by a great many professional economists to expand and to keep unemployment down, he doggedly steered a far more cautious course than either party wanted. His relationship with Mr. Nixon was anything but cordial, and in later years he occasionally spoke with heat of the attempts of the Nixon staff to bully him -- attempts which, as the Nixon staff could testify, were not successful.

But with President Ford, whose views on policy were much nearer to his own, Mr. Burns developed a close and warm cooperation. The Ford presidency was probably the period when relations between the White House and the Federal Reserve were the most serene in recent history, despite the deep recession of those years.

Recalled to service by President Reagan, he was a widely respected U.S. ambassador to West Germany for four years. Pipe in hand, with vigor and candor, he lectured the nation that invented the professorial manner -- and did it to great applause. Throughout a long life he was known as much for his integrity as for his sharp wit. Yesterday, at the age of 83, he died at Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications of heart surgery