Sir William Arthur Lewis
January 23, 1915 – June 15, 1991
Nationality: St. Lucian
William Arthur Lewis was born in Castries, St. Lucia the fourth of his parents, George and Ida Lewis, five sons. Both of Lewis’ parents were teachers who had moved to St. Lucia from Antigua about a dozen years before his birth.
Lewis’ seventh year of life would prove pivotal. During that year, Lewis became sick and had to be kept home from school. Fearing that Lewis would fall behind in school, his father began to tutor him at home. When Lewis returned to school three months later, he was so well-instructed that he skipped two grades.
Unfortunately, Lewis’ father also died when he was seven. He would later credit his mother’s self-discipline, determination, and love with guiding him and his brothers to success.
Having skipped two grades, Lewis was surrounded by classmates who were two to three years older. This age difference meant he spent the rest of his childhood and most of his adolescent years being physically smaller than the other students. It resulted in a sort of inferiority complex as despite earning good grades, Lewis still felt he was lacking.
At the time St. Lucia was still a British colony and offered government scholarships to attend British universities. Lewis completed high school at 14 years old but was too young to take the required scholarship exam. In the interim, he found work as a civil service clerk where he gained work experience and learned organizational skills in addition to writing and typing.
In 1932, Lewis successfully passed the exam and journeyed to Great Britain. Given the prejudice faced by and the limitations placed on Black students from the colonies, most pursued these scholarships with plans to become doctors or lawyers. Lewis aspired to be an engineer but accepted the reality that while he might complete a degree, government agencies and private companies would not be willing to hire a Black engineer. He decided to study commerce and law as he could likely find a related job back in St. Lucia after graduation.
When Lewis enrolled at the London School of Economics (LSE) at the age of 18, he was the only Black student. He began working towards a Bachelor of Commerce which required various business courses and introduced Lewis to economics. As with his previous studies, Lewis excelled and came to be regarded as an exceptionally gifted student.
Lewis completed his undergraduate studies in 1937 with honors. Yet, he faced rejection after graduation as various businesses and government agencies rejected his applications for positions. In recognition of his capabilities, LSE awarded Lewis another scholarship, and three years later he obtained a Ph.D. in economics.
While working on his Ph.D., Lewis simultaneously began a university teaching career. At 23, he received his first one-year teaching assignment and at 33 years old was a full professor. With his first assignment in 1938, Lewis became the first Black faculty member at the London School of Economics. He later became the first Black person to hold a chair at a British university while at the University of Manchester.
The administration at LSE had initially been fearful that Lewis, a Black man, would not be well received by students. Thus he began his teaching role through limited contracts and curtailed responsibilities outside the classroom. Yet, Lewis emerged as a popular and well-respected professor among students.
Throughout his academic teaching career, Lewis focused on industrial, world, and developing economics at various times. As is common practice, he also wrote several articles and published several books. Moving to various parts of the world for academic and administrative positions combined with his past experiences in St. Lucia, would gel into Lewis’ perspective on economic theory.
Lewis was tasked with teaching a course on the economics of what took place between World War I and II. While his lectures on the subject resulted in a 1949 book, Lewis felt the topic had not been fully explored. Hoping to fully explain the Great Depression, Lewis would spend several years researching stats about the subject. Finding the data needed was unavailable or unreliable, Lewis took several years-long breaks.
In the 1950s he published Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour and The Theory of Economic Growth. From these publications came “The Lewis Model”, an economic model that explains how relatively poor nations can experience economic growth and development. His theory hypothesizes that surplus or unlimited labor in traditional fields such as farming can result in low wages, cheap production, and high profits for some. But taking some of that surplus labor and moving it into new, industrialized, and/or capitalist industries at livable wages would grow the economy and national incomes.
Lewis was an adviser to both the British Colonial Office and various colonies, helping to chart the path to colonial independence. Among other roles, he helped to establish the Caribbean Development Bank, was the first vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and was Ghana’s first chief economic adviser after it gained independence. These accomplishments along with his publications, research, and lectures would result in an award of the 1979 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. This was in addition to having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1963.
After several years of moving around to fill various positions, Lewis settled at Princeton University in 1963. He spent the next 20 years as a professor of political economy before retiring in 1983. Lewis continued to give lectures and presentations at his leisure.
Sir William Arthur Lewis died on June 15, 1991, at the age of seventy-six at his home in Bridgetown, Barbados. Lewis had married the daughter of his parents’ friend in 1947 and their union produced two daughters.
- Brenton, Felix. 2020. “Sir William Arthur Lewis (1915-1991).” Blackpast.Org. July 25, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/sir-william-arthur-lewis-1915-1991/.
- Fernando, Jason. 2022. “Who Was Sir Arthur Lewis and What Is the Lewis Model?” Investopedia. Investopedia. September 30, 2022. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/sir-arthur-lewis.asp.
- Levitt, Kari Polanyi. n.d. “W. Arthur Lewis: Pioneer of Development Economics.” The UN Chronicle . United Nations. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/w-arthur-lewis-pioneer-development-economics.
- Lewis, William Arthur. n.d. “Sir Arthur Lewis Biographical.” NobelPrize.Org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/1979/lewis/biographical/.
- Nelson, Auburn. 2021. “W. Arthur Lewis: West Indian Economist & Nobel Laureate.” The New York Public Library. June 9, 2021. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2021/06/09/w-arthur-lewis-west-indian-economist-nobel-laureate.
- “Sir William Arthur Lewis.” n.d. Nobel Perspectives. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.ubs.com/microsites/nobel-perspectives/en/laureates/arthur-lewis.html.
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