An economist, recipient, with Robert W. Fogel, of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Economics. The two were recognized for their pioneering work in cliometrics--also called "new economic history"--the application of economic theory and statistical methods to the study of history.
North studied economics at the University of California at Berkeley (B.A., 1942; Ph.D., 1952). From 1950 he taught economics at the University of Washington, leaving in 1983 to join the faculty of Washington University (St. Louis, Mo.). From 1960 to 1966 he was director of the Institute for Economic Research, and from 1967 to 1987 he was director of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He also acted as economic consultant to the governments of Russia, Argentina, Peru, and the Czech Republic.
North's work was primarily theoretical. He argued that technical innovations alone are insufficient to propel economic development: in order for a market economy to flourish, certain legal and social institutions, such as property rights, must be in place. His ideas were expressed in a number of books, including Structure and Change in Economic History (1981) and Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance (1990).