UC Berkeley Press Release
Gerard Debreu, 1983 Nobel Prize winner and UC Berkeley professor emeritus, dies in Paris at age 83
BERKELEY – Nobel Prize winner Gerard Debreu, emeritus professor of economics and mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, died Dec. 31 in Paris of natural causes. He was 83.
Debreu won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1983 for applying mathematical rigor to the fundamental theory of supply and demand in economics. The law of supply and demand dates back to the 18th century, but Debreu's mathematical models provided proof of how prices affect the supplies of goods bought and sold. Through the work of Debreu and others, the conditions of the "invisible hand" in the marketplace were clarified.
A native of Calais, France, Debreu also was an officer of the French Legion of Honor and a commander of the French National Order of Merit.
Fellow Nobel laureate and Stanford University economics professor Kenneth Arrow said he and Debreu found themselves independently researching similar economic ideas in the early 1950s, which eventually led to a joint paper in 1954 on the existence of equilibrium in an economy. Arrow warmly remembered how they collaborated on the paper.
"It was a wonderful experience, he was just so brilliant to work with," Arrow said. "One of us would say a single word, and the other would just understand immediately. I learned quite a bit from him."
Debreu was born on July 4, 1921. He broke off his studies in mathematics as a young man to enlist in the French Army after D-day, serving briefly in the French occupational forces in Germany until July 1945. He resumed his studies after the war, shifting his focus to economics.
Debreu became interested in economics in 1945 after reading a book that described the mathematical theory of general economic equilibrium that was founded by Leon Walras from 1874-77.
"During that period, I was an Attaché de Recherches (research associate) of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, which showed an impressive tolerance for the absence of tangible results associated with the change from one field to another distant field," Debreu dryly noted in an autobiography he prepared for the Nobel Foundation.
Before his almost 30-year tenure at UC Berkeley, Debreu worked from 1950 to 1960 at the University of Chicago and Yale University for the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics, and at Stanford 's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 1960 to 1961.
Debreu joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1962 at a time when the economics department was pointedly building up its staff to create a powerhouse that would soon be recognized as one of the pre-eminent economic departments in the academic world. Debreu's Nobel was the first in a string of four Nobel Memorial Prizes in economics won by UC Berkeley faculty. John Harsanyi won in 1994, Daniel McFadden in 2000 and George Akerlof in 2001.
Debreu remained an active researcher and teacher after his retirement in 1991. He was also an economic adviser to several governments and toured extensively in Europe to lecture on economic theory.
"He really was the most important contributor to the development of formal math models within economics," said UC Berkeley Professor Robert Anderson, who holds a joint appointment in economics and mathematics. "He brought to economics a mathematical rigor that had not been seen before."
That mathematical rigor made lasting changes to the field of economics, making it a more formal and precise science, Anderson said.
Debreu is remembered by friends as unfailingly polite and gracious, with a love of hiking in the Bay Area and of good food and accommodations when traveling.
"He was a wonderful person to know," said UC Berkeley economics colleague and close friend George Break. "He used to go on very long hikes, Point Reyes was his favorite." When the families traveled overseas together, Break said Debreu would arrange the trip so they stayed at chateaus and had excellent meals at every stop: "He had very high standards."
That standard of excellence was an important reason Debreu was recruited to UC Berkeley, said Break and Arrow.
"He drew people here," Break said. "They knew he was extremely distinguished."
Debreu also took an interest in politics, deciding to become an American citizen after the Watergate hearings were over and he saw how the country had dealt with the constitutional crisis, friends said.
"After the impeachment, he said: 'This is a great country. I will become a citizen,'" Arrow recalled. Debreu became a U.S. citizen in July 1975.
Arrow said Debreu also showed great courage when he went to Chile around 1980 on a human rights fact-finding mission on behalf of the National Academy of Sciences to report on how scientists were being treated.
It was a more playful Debreu that was seen on campus in 1979, when he enthusiastically volunteered to coach the first ever "Little Big Game" between economics graduate students from UC Berkeley and Stanford – despite knowing nothing about American football. Debreu coached the UC Berkeley team while Arrow coached the Stanford team. The intradepartmental touch-football game became an annual event with the winner awarded a bronzed apple core trophy in honor of Arrow's and Debreu's Nobel Prize-winning theoretical work on the equilibrium (or "core") of an economy.
"Everything he did was with elegance," Anderson said. "In his lectures he would always make a beautiful presentation, which clearly identified all of the assumptions and explained the proof in detail – and then ended precisely when it was supposed to.
"At a personal level, he was unfailingly courteous, precise, and a joy to be around." Debreu is survived by his wife, Francoise Debreu; two daughters, Chantal De Soto and Florence Tetrault; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A service at the Columbarium of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris will be held Friday, Jan. 7.