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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 641-647

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Hans Brems (1915–2000)

Royall Brandis

IMAGE LINK= Hans died on 16 September 2000, just one month shy of his eighty-fifth birthday. He had been a member of the University of Illinois faculty for forty-six years, the last fourteen as professor emeritus. He continued to teach on a reduced schedule after retirement, usually offering a graduate seminar in the history of economic thought. He was a strong supporter of this journal; his first article for it was published in volume 2 (1970), his last in volume 28 (1996). There were ten other articles in between.

He was a Dane and proud of it, but he was equally proud of his American citizenship, which he obtained as quickly as possible after settling in the United States. His grandfather had attempted to establish the first automobile manufacturing concern in Denmark; however, his enterprise soon proved Adam Smith's observation about the division of labor being limited by the extent of the market, and the business lost out in competition with manufacturers from large nations.

Hans had what must have been a genetically derived love for the automobile. His first significant scholarly endeavor, his dissertation, gave evidence of this. Accepted for the Ph.D. degree by the University of Copenhagen in 1949 and published in a revised version by Harvard University Press in 1951, the work was in part based on research conducted in the United States after the war during a year spent at Harvard under a Rockefeller Foundation grant. The volume, Product Equilibrium under Monopolistic Competition, while highly theoretical in substance, is replete with real-world examples. Most of these are drawn from the [End Page 641] American automobile industry, which Hans (in a move reminiscent of Alfred Marshall's tour of American industry) had visited while in the United States.

Economics and Mathematics

Hans joined the Department of Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1954. Shortly thereafter he spoke to the departmental seminar on the growing trend to mathematize economic theory. In listing the reasons for this trend, especially in American economics, he observed that the influx of European scholars before and after World War II brought to our shores some economists who, at first, were more fluent in mathematics than they were in the English language. Consequently, they found mathematical economics easier than exposition in English. At the same time, many American economists had acquired along their educational paths what might be called a reading knowledge of the rather elementary mathematics then being used in economics. They were often more proficient in that mathematics than in the immigrants' native languages. Thus, communication about economic theory between the two groups was conveniently done in the language of mathematics. This pragmatic view of one of the forces driving a revolution in economics was typical of Hans's approach to explanation and problem solving.

One might suppose from this observation and from his approach to the history of economic thought that Hans, who came to America from Denmark after World War II, exemplified these immigrant economists. Quite the contrary was the case. Hans not only was a fluent speaker of English, but he wrote in that language with a clarity and style that few American-born economists could match. I once complimented him on his facility in the English language. He replied modestly by asking if I had considered how few economists would be able to read one's articles if they were written in Danish!

In truth, what Hans said in this journal about Gustav Cassel might well be said of himself: “Cassel had what it took: a wide horizon, an instinct for reducing a problem to its essence, an ability to fit elements together in a natural way to form a logical whole—all done in simple, terse, and lucid language” (1989, 165). [End Page 642] [Begin Page 644]

Why a Mathematical Translation?

So, Hans's approach to the history of economic thought did not come from any personal difficulty with the use of the English language. Rather, it stemmed from...


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