Fetter, Frank Albert

Fetter, Frank Albert (1863-1949), first chairman of the Department of Economics and Social institutions, was a philosopher-theorist whose Indiana-Quaker upbringing drove him to use his great powers of theoretical analysis for the advancement of public policy and human welfare. The Economics Department still bears his imprint.

Born in Peru, Indiana, in 1863, Fetter was obliged to interrupt his course of study at Indiana University for eight years while he assumed the financial responsibilities of his disabled father. Finally graduating in 1891, he went on to Cornell, the Sorbonne, and to Halle, ~~~where he received a Ph.D. in 1894/ He returned to Cornell as an instructor but soon left for a professorship at Indiana University. Stanford called him west in 1898, but he resigned three years later in protest against violation of academic freedom. He returned to Cornell, where his international reputation as an economic theorist grew rapidly during the next decade. In 1911, having refused earlier offers from Yale and Columbia, he accepted Princeton's invitation to become chairman of its combined Department of History, Politics, and Economics.

Two years later, Fetter became chairman of the new Department of Economics and Social Institutions. For eleven years, he guided the development of a rapidly expanding program. Although he officially retired as a professor in 1931, he continued as a special lecturer in economic theory for two more years, and as a productive scholar and a vigorous exponent of economic justice until his death in 1949 at the age of 86.

Some indication of the distinguished position that Professor Fetter attained among American economists was his election to the presidency of the American Economic Association when he was only 49. He was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an active member of the American Philosophical Society. In 1927, the Austrian Economic Society awarded him its Karl Menger Medal. He received his first honorary degree of LL.D. from Colgate at 46 and his last from Princeton at 82. He was much in demand by other universities as visiting professor or lecturer.

Professor Fetter's major scholarly contributions were in the field of fundamental economic theory, including the theories of value, the concepts of value and price, capitalization, time preference, interest, and rent. Influenced by repeated visits to Austria, he emphasized subjective and psychological factors. He was at heart a ``welfare economist,'' often at odds with those he considered too concerned with ``price economics.'' His incisive understanding of the factors in price determination, however, made him in later years a vigorous opponent of monopoly because of its effect upon the welfare of consumers. He was a prolific writer of scholarly articles. Most Princeton undergraduates of the 1920s studied, with mixed emotions, his famous texts, Economic Principles and Modern Economic Problems.

Professor Fetter was at his best in face-to-face interchange with colleagues and graduate students. Here his intellectual acumen, penetrating analysis, keen wit, and, above all, his intuitive integrity and warm personal charm came through. He was loved and admired not only for himself but also for his concern for people and their problems.

His insight, courage, and integrity were communicated with such friendly warmth and dry humor that his influence upon colleagues and students reached far beyond their hard-earned mastery of economic theory. He encouraged students to become involved in public service in solving the problems of education, poverty, mental illness, juvenile delinquency, and bad housing. His extracurricular activities in these fields became the basis of a pioneering Princeton course in sociology which, despite its campus label, ``Travelling Gut,'' took many students for their first time into asylums, prisons, and slums, and deepened their understanding of human tragedy and social responsibility. By his example, he reinforced Woodrow Wilson's goal for Princeton -- that its faculty and students should serve their fellow men by acts as well as by ideas.

J. Douglas Brown


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion