Albert Fishlow has been improving our understanding of the economic history and development of Brazil and Latin America for six decades—and counting. He is professor emeritus at two institutions: the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as dean of international and area studies and spent 22 years as a member of the faculty, and Columbia University, where he was director of the Institute of Latin American Studies and the Center for the Study of Brazil until his retirement in 2007. His career has included appointments at Yale University, where he directed the Center for International and Area Studies, and civil service as deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs during the Carter Administration. In the 1990s, Fishlow was a founder and first president of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association, regarded as the most successful society for economic research in the developing world. In 1999, the Republic of Brazil awarded him the National Order of the Southern Cross, the country’s highest honor. Throughout the Americas, Fishlow is renowned for his exemplary scholarship, leadership, and mentorship of generations of Brazilian and American students.

Fishlow completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD in economics at Harvard in 1963. His dissertation, on the impact of American railroads on the antebellum economy, was a pathbreaking effort to apply quantitative techniques to historical research that would come to define the intellectual orientation of his scholarship. His publications span the full breadth of his career; they include the first rigorous assessment of Brazilian income distribution following the rapid economic growth of the late 1960s, published in the American Economic Review in 1972, and his 2011 book Starting Over: Brazil Since 1985, the definitive economic history of Brazil since the restoration of democracy through the early 21st century. His latest book, Agriculture and Industry in Brazil, is scheduled for publication this year.

Frances Hagopian, Jorge Paulo Lemann Senior Lecturer on Government at Harvard and faculty co-chair of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Brazil Studies Program, recognizes Fishlow as a major influence not only among economists, but also among scholars and leaders across the spectrum of Latin American studies and governance. “Al made major contributions to how we understand long-term economic growth and development,” explains Hagopian. “He is of the generation that asked the big questions and that considered it their responsibility to explain their ideas to policymakers and to broader audiences.”

John Coatsworth, founding director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, who was persuaded to join the Columbia faculty by Fishlow, admires his ability to inspire greatness in others. “Albert Fishlow is a brilliant scholar, an effective builder of academic institutions, and a notoriously generous colleague and mentor,” says Coatsworth, now provost emeritus at Columbia. “His scholarly work has focused on the economic history and political economy of Brazil and the developing world more generally. He is a master at connecting theoretical insight to deep empirical research. In Brazilian economic history, he is by far the leading scholar. He has trained two generations of graduate students from Brazil and the United States whose work has vastly improved the quality of thinking about economic development and economic policy in Brazil.”

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president of Brazil from 1995 to 2003, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Harvard in 2016, shares this view of Fishlow’s unparalleled influence and service. “Professor Fishlow has been for many years the informal ‘dean’ of international Brazilianists,” says Cardoso. “His many important books and articles are one important aspect of his contribution and have been major reference points for all of us. Of equal importance, however, has been Professor Fishlow’s role as teacher and mentor to a generation of Brazilian economists and advisor to several of us who have exercised national policy-making responsibility.” 

One of Fishlow’s most distinguished students was Pedro Malan, an economist who served as Brazil’s Minister of Finance during Cardoso’s presidency, helping to bring stability, growth, and greater fairness to the Brazilian economy. “His former students, most of them turned friends—a remarkable human quality of Professor Fishlow’s—have through their own teaching and research helped to improve the quality of public policy debate in many fields in which he has labored,” says Malan. “Brazil as a country, and Latin America as a region, owes much to him.”

Albert Fishlow, for your intellectual leadership in the field of Brazilian economics, for your commendable success in strengthening Latin American institutions and international partnerships, and for the great magnitude of your influence as a mentor to generations of scholars and world leaders, we are proud to award you the 2020 Centennial Medal.

Read about the 2020 Centennial medalists

Albert Fishlow: 2020 Centennial Medal Citation

Photo by Leandro Fonseca/EXAME