Obituary: Professor David Greasley

February 1, 2021 | Society news
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David Greasley was born in 1951 in Clowne, a coal-mining centre in the Bolsover district of Derbyshire. He was educated at the University of Liverpool, from which he graduated with a degree in Economics in 1972, before proceeding to postgraduate work in Economic History at the same institution. In 1975, he was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Economic History at the University of Edinburgh. The department, whose senior members at the time included Michael Flinn, Berrick Saul and Christopher Smout, appointed David so as to augment substantially the department’s quantitative and econometric skills. Four years later, in 1979, David completed his PhD. thesis on the application of machine-cutting technology in the early twentieth century British coal-mining industry.

In his early years at Edinburgh, David both developed his existing research on the coal-mining industry with articles appearing in Explorations in Economic History, Economica and the Journal of Economic History, and also broadened his research interests and publications on topics such as wages, income and productivity. David’s last publication on coal mining was for a volume on the political economy of nationalisation, edited by Bob Millward and John Singleton. From the mid-1990s, David’s research interests shifted to considering both the discontinuities and patterns in economic and industrial growth, and also the internationally comparative aspects of that growth. In collaborative research with Les Oxley and Jakob Madsen, David developed further his interests in natural resource economics. With Les, David was to develop widely-cited, pioneering work on the application of time series methods to long-run historical data, as well as breaking new ground in the comparative economic history of the Antipodes. It was in 1995 that ‘Australia’ appeared for the first time in the title of a journal (Economic Record) article, and increasingly comparisons of Australia, Canada , New Zealand and the USA became a characteristic feature of David’s work. Fittingly, one of David’s last publications, on the industrialisation of Australia’s natural capital, appeared in the Cambridge Economic History of Australia. Both before and after his retirement in 2015, David was also heavily involved in a research project with Nick Hanley and others on the long-run analysis of well-being and sustainable development, with carbon continuing to figure at the end of his work as it had at the start. In all, David published 56 peer-reviewed articles in leading economic and economic history journals, five book chapters, and one edited volume.

In addition to his research, David also picked up more than his fair share of teaching and administration. In teaching, first-year students were introduced to the merits, or otherwise, of Benjamin and Kochin on benefit:wage ratios, while third- and fourth-year students met the work of Milton Friedman, Anna Schwartz, Martha Olney and others in David’s comparative courses on economic development in the U.K. and U.S.A.  In time further courses, on ‘New Zealand and the World Economy, 1870-1939’ and ‘Transforming Australia: Economic Development since 1788’, were added. David’s teaching was popular, conscientious and stimulating, which was especially impressive given the often technical nature of what was being taught. As a mentor and supervisor to postgraduates and colleagues, David generously taught as much by example as by instruction.

As Head of the Department of Economic and Social History between 2001 and 2004, David’s integrity and competence shone. High administrative competence brought its usual unsought rewards, David being charged with co-ordinating the Teaching Programme Review for History, before being chosen as the Director of Research in the newly-established School of History, Classics and Archaeology from 2008. In amongst these administrative commitments, David found time to play a major role in bringing the Sixth World Congress of Cliometrics to Edinburgh in 2008. Happily, in 2007, David’s academic achievements were recognised with his promotion to a personal chair in Economic History. With an established international reputation, and a seemingly ever-growing interest in New Zealand, David would self-mockingly complain at his folly in choosing an area of research which involved some of the world’s longest air journeys. Characteristically, he would omit to mention that one such visit had included giving an Academic Linkages Guest Lecture on ‘Globalisation and Wages’ to the New Zealand Treasury in 2003.

David will be much missed, and his death on 12th January 2021 at the age of 69 was all too premature. Quiet, knowledgeable and incisive, David was someone to whom you could go for advice on administrative problems, or to discover, usually in about two minutes, what was fundamentally wrong with your latest favourite hypothesis. A gentle, kind and unassuming scholar, it was a privilege to know him.

Professor Martin Chick
(University of Edinburgh)