Elinor Ostrom, only woman Nobel laureate in Economics, dies

Elinor Ostrom,  professor at Indiana University and the  first woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics, died today  from cancer at age 78.

IU community mourns passing of Distinguished Professor and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The entire Indiana University community mourns the passing today of Distinguished Professor Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her groundbreaking research on the ways that people organize themselves to manage resources.

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Elinor Ostrom

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Ostrom, 78, died of cancer at 6:40 a.m. today at IU Health Bloomington Hospital surrounded by friends. She was senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

She is survived by Vincent Ostrom, her husband and colleague. She also leaves behind a large extended family of colleagues, collaborators, staff and friends, in Bloomington and on five continents, who worked closely with her during an extraordinary 50-year career.

Ostrom shared the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, also known as the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, with University of California economist Oliver Williamson. She was the first woman and remains the only woman to be awarded the prize.

“Indiana University has lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure with the passing of Elinor Ostrom,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said. “Throughout her lifetime, Lin has brought distinction to the university through her groundbreaking work, which received the ultimate recognition in 2009 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

“Beyond her passion for the epochal academic study of the intersections between economics and societal institutions, which she and her husband, Vincent, pursued throughout their remarkable careers at Indiana University, Lin’s love for her students and the enduring support she has provided to her colleagues will leave a lasting legacy that stretches well beyond IU. Their generosity to Indiana University was extraordinary as well, with gifts, including Lin’s Nobel Prize funds, totaling many millions of dollars.

“We are proud that Lin’s life work will continue to be represented through the efforts of those at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and I am especially honored to have called Lin a friend and colleague,” McRobbie said. “The entire Indiana University community joins me in offering its deepest sympathies to Lin’s husband and outstanding faculty member, Vincent, and to her family.”

“Lin Ostrom was an exemplary citizen of the Bloomington campus,” said Lauren Robel, interim IU Bloomington provost and university executive vice president. “Along with her husband, Vincent, she was extraordinarily generous with her intellectual gifts, and invited interdisciplinary and innovative collaboration with her colleagues across the campus through the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

“Beyond her incredible achievements as a scholar, she was also remarkable for her humility, kindness and boundless curiosity,” Robel said. “We have been exceptionally fortunate that Lin made her academic home here on this campus. Although she will be deeply missed, we take comfort in knowing that her work on the campus will carry on through the Workshop that now bears her and Vincent’s names.”

“Our dear friend Lin may have left us, but her spirit, and her work, will live on in those of us fortunate to have known her as a colleague and mentor,” said Michael McGinnis, director of the Workshop and IU professor of political science. “Now it’s our responsibility to carry on her legacy, and that of Vincent.”

Although she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2011, Ostrom continued to find joy in traveling to places as distant as India and Mexico, working with colleagues on grants and publications, writing letters of recommendation, advising and teaching a graduate seminar. She was never happier than when she was conducting field research with her students.

In April 2012, she was named to the Time 100, Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In May 2012, the IU Board of Trustees approved renaming the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis to honor Elinor and Vincent Ostrom.

The Ostroms were recognized in February 2010 with the University Medal, the highest award bestowed by Indiana University. McRobbie, who presented the medal, also announced Elinor Ostrom’s elevation to the rank of distinguished professor, the university’s most prestigious academic appointment.

An Indiana University faculty member since 1965, Ostrom has conducted research on topics ranging from the effectiveness of urban police departments to the management of groundwater basins, irrigation systems, pasture lands, forests and fisheries.

In addition to her positions at IU, Ostrom was founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University. Known as a dedicated and tireless teacher and mentor, she chaired or served on dissertation and advisory committees for more than 130 Ph.D. students and took a continued interest in their careers.

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The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.” Through a multidisciplinary approach that combined theory, field studies and laboratory experiments, she showed that ordinary people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources. Her work countered the conventional wisdom that only private ownership or top-down regulation could prevent a “tragedy of the commons,” in which users would inevitably destroy the resources that they held in common.

Ostrom was born Elinor Awan on Aug. 7, 1933, in Los Angeles. She often talked about the influence on her life of being a child of the Great Depression, helping her family grow food in a large garden and knitting scarves for soldiers during World War II. As a self-described “poor kid in a rich kid’s school,” Beverly Hills High School, she swam competitively and competed on the debate team.

Although her parents didn’t have college degrees, she worked her way through UCLA, graduating in three years, and then worked in the private sector before entering graduate school. Despite resistance to admitting women to doctoral programs, she earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA.

Dissertation research on Los Angeles’ West Basin groundwater resource introduced Ostrom to the study of common-pool resources, in which multiple users have access and potentially compete for a limited supply of goods or services. Later, at IU, she studied police departments in Indianapolis and Chicago.

She moved to Indiana when her husband, Vincent Ostrom, was hired as a professor of political science. She was initially hired as a visiting assistant professor, she said, because the department needed someone to teach American government at 7:30 a.m.

Together, the Ostroms founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973. They called the research center a “workshop” because of a conviction that research skills are best acquired and used in a setting where students, working as apprentices and journeymen, have the opportunity to collaborate with experienced scholars.

Over the years, the Workshop became a hub for an international network of scholars and scientists from many disciplines. It also served as a model for the types of collective action that Ostrom studied, with faculty and staff sharing responsibility for day-to-day activities.

Elinor Ostrom’s best known book, “Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” examines effective governance systems for common-pool resources, drawing on studies of water management districts, irrigation systems, grazing resources, fisheries, forests and other examples.

She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She received numerous international awards, including honorary doctorates from universities in India, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and the United States.

She has served on the editorial boards of more than two dozen academic journals and is the author of hundreds of articles and chapters and more than two dozen books, including “Understanding Institutional Diversity,” “The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid” and “Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice.”

She was president of the Public Choice Society from 1982 to 1984 and president of the American Political Science Association in 1996-97. She was the first woman to serve as chair of the IU Bloomington Department of Political Science, holding the position from 1980 to 1984.

The Workshop is closed today because of Ostrom’s death. Plans for a memorial celebration will be announced later.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Tocqueville Fund for the Workshop.