Remembering Sir Tony Atkinson

12 January 2017

Colchester Campus

Economics, Department of

Sir Tony Atkinson died on 1 January 2017, aged 72. Tony was an esteemed and much loved former colleague in the Department of Economics, where he worked from 1971-1976. He maintained his links with the University over the years, visiting us most recently for our department's 50th anniversary. Read his presentation for our anniversary (.pdf).

Tony was a renowned economist, specialising in social inclusion and inequality. Tony was a prodigious scholar, but the application of policy to real life also mattered to him, and he tried to make a difference in many ways, including working with others at Essex to establish and staff a welfare rights stall in Colchester in the early 1970s to explain benefit entitlements to passers-by. Despite his broad range of accomplishments, he was, and remained, a wonderfully self-effacing colleague, whose counsel was frequently sought and always wise.

Tony’s influence in his five years in the Department of Economics at Essex was profound, one example of which was the considerable number of doctoral students whom he supervised to completion. One of those is Professor Alan Harrison. After earning his BA, MA and PhD in Economics at Essex, Harrison had a successful career as an academic and university leader, most recently as Provost and Vice-Principal at Queen's University in Canada. Alan offers a personal reflection on Tony below.

Speaking to the New York Times, Thomas Piketty described the work on wealth inequality that Atkinson and Harrison undertook at Essex as "at the origins of all modern research programs on inequality measurement.”

Tony Atkinson: A Heartfelt Appreciation
By Alan Harrison

Tony Atkinson was one of a kind. It was my amazing good fortune that he was a friend and a mentor to me.

I first met Tony Atkinson in the 1970-1971 academic year, when I was an MA student at the University of Essex. Albert Sloman, Essex’s Vice-Chancellor, had just recruited Christopher Bliss and Tony as professors of economics, and although the appointments were not effective until the summer of 1971, Tony was already teaching in the MA programme.

In the spring of 1971, when Tony learned that the Social Sciences Research Council had awarded him funding to support research on the distribution of wealth in Britain, he asked me whether I would be interested in a full-time research position working on the project, adding that I would, at the same time, be able to pursue doctoral studies as a staff candidate. I accepted Tony’s invitation, without realizing at the time the scale of positive consequences that would result.

For the next three years, until the summer of 1974, when I left Essex to pursue my own university career, I worked under Tony’s direction on the data analysis that was eventually described in The Distribution of Wealth in Britain, published by Cambridge University Press in 1978. True to his word, Tony made sure I also had time to begin work on a PhD thesis, which I completed in late 1977.

Tony’s supervision of my work for the book and for my thesis was exemplary, but I owe much more to Tony than just the development of research skills that have served me so well over the years. For example, while we were both still at Essex, Tony told me I would be a co-author of the book, which was an act of incredible generosity, one that helped enormously in launching my academic career.

As well as the book, Tony and I co-authored four journal articles, the last one in 1989 (with James Gordon). We also gave evidence to, and wrote a background paper for, the 1976 UK Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, and contributed to Wealth and Personal Incomes, a book published by Pergamon Press for the Royal Statistical Society and the Social Sciences Research Council.

I am only three years Tony’s junior, and, for me at least, age has led me to reflect on individuals who most influenced my career. In particular, I came to appreciate the crucial importance of all the things Tony did for me, and expressed my thanks to Tony personally.

Anyone who knew Tony could predict his response. He was gracious in accepting my thanks, but nonetheless as self-effacing as ever. We have lost a truly outstanding economist, but we have also lost a most wonderful human being, one who defined altruism.

Along with many others, I believe Tony’s work should have been recognized by the award of a Nobel Prize, but I take comfort from knowing that Tony Atkinson himself was not in the least the sort of person who craved such recognition: he cared only about making a real difference to society, and in this respect he has left a lasting legacy.

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