Esther Lowenthal’s long career teaching economics at Smith explored subjects from government spending and taxation to the theories of socialist economists. Lowenthal graduated Bryn Mawr College in 1905 and studied at Oxford University before earning her PhD from Columbia University in 1911. In 1911 she began teaching at Smith College, where she worked until her retirement in 1952. She served as dean of the faculty from 1946 to 1948 and chaired both the department of economics and the Council on Industrial Studies. Specializing in public finance, she often lectured to the larger community on economic issues such as taxes, New Deal programs, and government oversight of industry. She adopted a Spanish orphan through the Foster Parents’ Plan for War Children.
In 1960, Bryn Mawr College celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary by honoring seventy-five of its most distinguished alumnae. Esther Lowenthal was lauded as “a lucid and lively teacher, an efficient, clear-headed dean, and a witty, warm-hearted, and invaluable member of the... community.”
Lowenthal was born on September 15, 1883, in Rochester, New York, to Louise and Max Lowenthal. Her father was one of the founders of the Mechanics Institute, now the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Lowenthal graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1905. After completing economic studies at Oxford University, she enrolled at Columbia University and, under the direction of Edwin R.A. Seligman, received her Ph.D. in 1911. The university published her dissertation The Ricardian Socialists, which examined the work of socialist economists, including William Thompson, John Grey, Thomas Hodgskin, and John Francis Bray, between 1820 and 1840, and the significant place they occupy in the history of socialist theory. Lowenthal’s work attempted “to estimate the relative importance of the Utopian and the scientific elements in the reasoning of these socialists and to examine ... their political and economic theories.”
Lowenthal became a member of the economics faculty of Smith College in 1911, was made a full professor in 1921, and became the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics in 1925. She served the college in a variety of other roles until her retirement in 1952. She stepped in to fill the newly defined position of dean of the faculty from 1946 to 1948, with a mission to revitalize educational policy and the curriculum after the war. Lowenthal also served as chair of the department of economics, the chair of the Council on Industrial Studies, and president of the Smith chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
A distinguished economist, Lowenthal was respected by her colleagues and students for the enthusiasm and imagination she brought to her discipline. She specialized in public finance, particularly government revenues and expenditures, and modern forms of taxation.
Lowenthal lived her philosophy as well as teaching it. She was an active speaker in the community on subjects such as taxes, New Deal programs, and the relation of government to industry. She adopted a Spanish girl through the Foster Parents’ Plan for War Children, and her will included an endowment to the local United Way. Lowenthal followed her own advice to students: “Remember that your mind is your closest companion. Keep it interesting.” In 1950, friends and former students established the Esther Lowenthal Scholarship, honoring a career that “steadily exemplified the virtues of clarity, reason, and liberality.”
She died on May 18, 1980, in Rochester, New York.
Foreword to “Shutdown in the Connecticut Valley: A Study of Worker Displacement in the Small Industrial Community,” by Katharine D. Lumpkin. Smith College Studies in History 19 (1935): 141–144
“Labor Policy of Oneida Community, Ltd.” Journal of Political Economy35 (February 1927)
“The Ricardian Socialists.” Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law 46 (1911)
Lowenthal, Esther. Papers. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Mass..
Obituary. Smith Alumnae Quarterly 71 (1980): 68.
Records of the Office of the President. Smith College Archives.
Retirement notice. Smith Alumnae Quarterly 43 (1952): 212.