Campus & Community

Rothschild, Enlightenment scholar, named FAS professor

4 min read

Emma Rothschild, one of the leading historians of the Enlightenment whose extensive scholarly career has focused on the history of European economic ideas, has been appointed professor of history in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), effective July 1, 2007.

Rothschild, 59, who has been a visiting professor at Harvard since 2004, joins the University as a professor, and will direct the new Joint Center for History and Economics, established with King’s College, Cambridge.

“Professor Rothschild is a singularly accomplished historian because of her ability to understand complex philosophical perspectives, and interpret both their historical significance and their modern implications,” says David Cutler, FAS Dean for the Social Sciences. “Her contribution to her field has been significant because of her mastery of French and British sources, and her unique insights into economic history — as will be her contribution to the Department of History.”

Rothschild established herself as one of the most important writers on economics and technology in the 1970s when she published her first book “Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age” (Random House, 1973). The work foretold the waning of the American auto industry by tracking its history within the context of the introduction of the Japanese compact car and the then-current oil crisis.

In the 1980s, her focus shifted from technology to the history of security, and the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers before and after the French Revolution. It was the development of this focus on the historical origins of modern political and economic problems that led to her book “Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment,” which was published in 2001 by Harvard University Press and established Rothschild as one of the leading historians of the Enlightenment period.

The book explores how theorists of free trade have been misunderstood, both in their time and among modern economists, specifically vis-à-vis the notion that economic order would arise out of an unregulated environment. She showed that while Adam Smith, Turgot, and Condorcet supported free trade, they also believed that its conditions would not necessarily prevent poverty and famine, and they felt that government intervention on behalf of the poor was necessary.

In the past decade, Rothschild’s work has concentrated on Atlantic history, with its connective perspective on European and American history. She explored the history of empires in a 2006 article called “A Horrible Tragedy in the French Atlantic,” which analyzes an unsuccessful attempt by the French to settle Guyana in 1765. During the expedition, two-thirds of the 17,000 Europeans died from typhoid fever and other illnesses.

In her 2006 Tanner Lectures, “The Inner Life of Empires,” Rothschild examined the biographies of members of a Scottish family and the ways that their intimate history and daily lives illuminate the building of the British Empire. She uses their personal stories to compose a parallel historical narrative to a more structured perspective on the emerging economic and political institutions of the era.

Rothschild studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University, where she received a B.A. in 1967 and an M.A. in 1970. She won the prestigious Kennedy Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she studied economics. Between 1978 and 1988, she was an associate professor of humanities and an associate professor of science, technology, and society at MIT.

In 1988, Rothschild became a senior research fellow at King’s College, Cambridge. She co-founded the Centre for History and Economics at King’s College in 1991, which is counterpart to the Joint Center for History and Economics to be established at Harvard. She has chaired the Executive Committee of the United Nations Foundation Board and the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. She is also the chairman of the Kennedy Memorial Trust.