Douglass North, a Nobel Prize-winning economic historian whose work analyzed the long-term development of Europe and the United States and the role institutions play in fostering growth, died Nov. 23 at his home in Benzonia, Mich. He was 95.
His death was announced by Washington University in St. Louis, where he was an emeritus professor of economics. No cause was provided.
Dr. North shared the 1993 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences with Robert W. Fogel, then of the University of Chicago. Both men were in the 1960s vanguard of a field known as cliometrics, which merges economic theory and the statistical analysis of hard numbers raked from the past; Clio is the muse of history in Greek mythology.
Dr. North focused on the role of institutions — the rules and conventions of a society, such as laws, property rights, insurance, politics and customs — in long-term economic development.
In a 1968 article, he argued that improved productivity in ocean shipping from 1600 to 1850 was owed more to organizational changes — the rise of international trade and the drop in piracy, which reduced insurance costs and the need for manpower and armament — than to technological innovations.
That paper became “one of the most quoted research works in economic history,” the Nobel organization said in announcing Dr. North’s award. “Putting it simply,” the organization wrote, “North maintains that new institutions arise when groups in society see a possibility of availing themselves of profits that are impossible to realize under prevailing institutional conditions.”
“Economists generally believe that markets, not institutions, are what matters,” Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, told the New York Times in 1993. “What Doug pointed to is economic historians’ keenest insight, which is that markets are embedded in institutions. And that institutions change slowly over time, and therefore, that history matters.”
Dr. North was on the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle for 33 years before moving in 1983 to Washington University. There, he founded the Center in Political Economy, which he directed until 1990.
He became an adviser to Eastern European governments and newly independent former Soviet states with little experience with the political and legal mechanisms that provide incentives to spur economic activity.
With Ronald H. Coase, who won the economics Nobel in 1991, Dr. North created the International Society for the New Institutional Economics in 1997. Renamed the Society for Institutional & Organizational Economics, it has held conferences aimed at addressing developing countries’ political and economic hurdles.
Douglass Cecil North was born in Cambridge, Mass., on Nov. 5, 1920. He moved around frequently for his father’s managerial job with Metropolitan Life Insurance and completed high school at the private Choate (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Conn.
His main intellectual pursuit as a teenager was photography, and he won several prizes that led to a summer job in 1941 working with Dorothea Lange as part of the Farm Security Administration project, accompanying and photographing migrants in the central valley of California.
Lange’s husband, Paul Taylor, was an economist at the University of California at Berkeley and ultimately prevailed on Dr. North that there was great value in an economics degree.
By the time Dr. North graduated from Berkeley in 1942, he was a triple major in political science, economics and philosophy. In his Nobel autobiographical essay, he played down his academic record, calling it “mediocre to say the best,” because of his increasing devotion to Marxism and left-wing causes.
A pacifist, he said he joined the Merchant Marine during World War II because he didn’t want to “kill anyone.”
After his discharge, he grew more determined to make his mark in the world through economics with the intention to “improve societies.”
“The way to do that,” he wrote in his Nobel essay, “was to find out what made economies work the way they did or fail to work. I believed that once we had an understanding of what determined the performance of economies through time, we could then improve their performance. I have never lost sight of that objective.”
He received a doctorate from Berkeley in 1952. As a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research from 1956 to 1957, he was exposed to what he later called the “substantial stirring to try to change and transform economic history.”
One of his early books, “Institutional Change and American Economic Growth,” written in 1971 with Lance Davis and Calla Smorodin, analyzed American economic history from 1790 to 1860.
In Geneva on a fellowship in 1966, he turned his attention to European economic history and “quickly became convinced that the tools of neo-classical economic theory were not up to the task of explaining the kind of fundamental societal change that had characterized European economies from medieval times onward,” he wrote in his Nobel autobiography. “We needed new tools, but they simply did not exist.”
Much of his later career would focus on developing such tools. He also delved into cognitive science to weigh how people make choices that lead to economic change and focused on the study of why countries develop in such starkly different ways.
He told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted “to analyze and render intelligible . . . what makes them rich and poor. It’s something standard economics doesn’t have anything to say about.”
Dr. North and his first wife, from whom he was divorced, had three sons. He married Elisabeth Case in 1972. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.