Thomas K. McCraw, a renowned and much honored Harvard Business School historian, teacher, and author, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his book Prophets of Regulation and who played an important role in making business history more influential and accessible in the broader fields of history and management, died on Saturday, Nov. 3, in Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., after a long illness. He was 72.
McCraw retired from the active HBS faculty in 2006. At the time of his death, he was the School’s Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, Emeritus. He was also the former editor of the Business History Review, a quarterly journal of research published by Harvard Business School.
“Tom McCraw was an extraordinarily insightful and influential historian who won acclaim both on this campus and around the globe,” said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria. “His work will influence students and scholars for generations to come. Tom was the personification of the phrase ‘a scholar and a gentleman,’ and he will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him at Harvard Business School as a friend, colleague, or teacher.”
McCraw joined the Harvard Business School faculty as a visiting associate professor in 1976, when he became a colleague and protégé of the late Professor Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., the great historian of American and global big businesses and organizations. Chandler was recruiting a group of young historians, including Richard S. Tedlow, now the School’s Class of 1949 Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, and Richard H. K. Vietor, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, to make HBS the center of research in business history.
The group also became known for its excellence and innovations in the classroom, including the creation of a required first-year MBA course called Creating Modern Capitalism, an effort McCraw led and for which he edited an accompanying case book (published in 1997) titled Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions.
During his career, McCraw taught, advised, and was beloved by thousands of Harvard Business School MBA candidates. He also worked with and mentored many doctoral students who went on to join the faculties of universities around the world and make their own mark in the field of business history.
Added Professor Tedlow, “Tom was a born leader and luminous figure on the Business School campus. He excelled in all the roles that an HBS professor is called upon to perform: scholar, teacher, administrator, and mentor. He also did a great many things for which one receives little credit, but which are very important. He was, for example, an outstanding editor. In everything he did, Tom held himself to the highest standards. His books are masterworks of research, beautifully written, and crafted with an unmatched aesthetic sense.”
In his early work, McCraw combined his knowledge of history and public policy to provide a long-term perspective on issues raised by business and government relations. In an influential series of books and articles, he analyzed the rise of economic regulation in the United States in the last two centuries and explored how government policies affected competitiveness.
As McCraw saw it, “Too much government regulation can kill a company, an industry, and even a national economy — but so can too little. Successful capitalism requires the persistent encouragement of private entrepreneurship, but also constant public monitoring to ensure that the system does not spin out of control.”
He believed that a “foundational truth about capitalism is that no industry can regulate itself. The pressures for innovation and profit are simply too great — and never more so than in the present era of global capitalism.”
McCraw frequently used intellectual history as a compelling avenue for research, examining events through the lives of people who influenced them.In Prophets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis, and Alfred E. Kahn (1984), which won not only the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1985 and but also the triennial Thomas Newcomen Award for the Best Book on Business History, McCraw told the stories of four powerful men who sought to define and implement economic regulation in twentieth-century America.
Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, published in 2007, is a biography of one of the most significant economists and business theorists of the past century, Harvard University professor Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883-1950). The book chronicles Schumpeter’s tumultuous life spanning two world wars, the Great Depression, and the early Cold War, drawing on his vast writings, including private diaries and letters never before used. As the book explains, Schumpeter regarded “creative destruction” as the driving force of capitalism, since nearly all businesses fail because they are victims of innovation by their competitors. To survive, businesspeople must be entrepreneurial and think strategically. In Schumpeter’s view, the general prosperity produced by the “capitalist engine” far outweighs the wreckage it leaves behind.
Prophet of Innovation, which has been translated into six languages, also won numerous prizes, including the Hagley Prize for Best Book on Business History, the Joseph J. Spengler Prize for the Best Book on the History of Economics, the biennial Prize for Research on Innovation given by the International Joseph A. Schumpeter Society, and the Alfred and Fay Chandler Book Award in Business History.
McCraw began his academic career as a professor in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, but came to Harvard Business School in 1973-74 on a Harvard-Newcomen Fellowship in Business History. He returned in 1976 for a two-year appointment as a Visiting Associate Professor and was named a full professor with tenure in 1978. He became the Straus professor in 1989.
During his HBS career, he also held several administrative positions, including Director of Research, head of two required first-year courses, and chair and co-chair, from 1986 to 1997, of the Business, Government, and the International Economy Unit.
As a teacher, McCraw relished creating “tumult and controversy” in the classroom to galvanize students around the case study under consideration. “The whole phenomenon of case-method teaching motivates instructors as well [as well as students],” McCraw once wrote. “It encourages them to anticipate every possible direction the discussion might take and therefore stimulates their imagination.”