Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 by a gift from 19th-century Maryland philanthropist Johns Hopkins, an entrepreneur with Quaker roots who believed in improving public health and education in Baltimore and beyond. Previously adopted accounts portray Johns Hopkins as an early abolitionist whose father had freed the family’s enslaved people in the early 1800s, but recently discovered records offer strong evidence that Johns Hopkins held enslaved people in his home until at least the mid-1800s. More information about the university’s investigation of this history is available at the Hopkins Retrospective website.
Although there are many older universities in the U.S., Johns Hopkins was the first modern research university in the country, defining its mission to integrate research and teaching and emphasizing graduate education and research, as in the German model. Leading universities in the U.S. later followed Johns Hopkins’ lead and adopted this model
The Department of Political Economy, as it was named then (as were many other economics departments at the time) followed this philosophy, giving priority to graduate research rather than undergraduate education. It awarded its first PhD in 1878 to Henry Adams, who later became a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan. Notable early faculty in the Department included Herbert Baxter Adams, the very first faculty member and an economic historian who had been trained in the German system; Richard Ely, co-founder of the American Economic Association; Sidney Sherwood, an early advocate of the “marginalist” approach to economics which now dominates the discipline; and Francis Walker, often considered to be the “Dean” of American economics at the time.
Since that time, many remarkable faculty members and graduate students have conducted research in economics at Johns Hopkins. By the 1950s, even though the department employed only seven full time faculty members, it had grown to one of the best departments in the country. Faculty at the time and in the 1960s included Evsey Domar, Simon Kuznets (Nobel Prize 1971), Fritz Machlup, Jurg Niehans, Carl Christ, Edwin Mills, and Peter Newman. Its graduate program produced Nobel Prize winners Merton Miller (PhD ’53) and Robert Fogel (PhD ’63).
Since that time, the Department of Economics has continued to pursue research in economics and graduate training at the highest levels of excellence. While small in size relative to many other economics departments, it continues the tradition of hiring faculty at the top of their respective fields who are leaders in the discipline.