Epstein Lecture banner - image of Larry Epstein

Life, Work and Academic Legacy

Stephan R. (Larry) Epstein, Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics, died suddenly on February 3rd at the age of 46. Larry was brought up in Switzerland, and graduated with Laurea cum laude from the university of Siena. He obtained his PhD in history from Cambridge University and continued to work there as a postdoctoral research fellow until 1992, when he was appointed to a lectureship in economic history at LSE. By 1997 he had been promoted to a readership, and he became Professor of Economic History in 2001. At the time of his death he was Head of Department. 

Larry's field of expertise was the economic history of medieval and early modern Europe. He established a formidable reputation in this area early in his career, and left an impressive publication record including three sole-authored books, four edited volumes, and dozens of articles in journals and books. His work received a number of awards. His PhD thesis, on economic development and social transformation in late medieval Sicily, appeared in 1992, but Larry had already caught the eye of the international scholarly community with a 1991 paper in Past and Present comparing the regional development of Sicily and Tuscany in the late Middle Ages. In this paper, he demonstrated that, contrary to established ideas, the urban institutions of Florence had acted as a brake on economic development in the region as a whole. His research interests were, however, much broader than Italy alone, and his mastery of a number of European languages enabled him to expand on this idea in his book Freedom and Growth, published in 2000, which investigated the interactions between processes of state formation and economic development. Through a comparative analysis of various European regions, the book makes the point that the creation of territorial states was a precondition for the development of markets and hence economic growth. Freedom and Growth won the Ranki Prize of the Economic History Association (USA) for the Outstanding Book in European Economic History, 1999-2001.

Larry had a strong interest in theories of history, and recognised the need to draw on other disciplines, especially economics and sociology, and more recently cognitive psychology, to inform historical research. In recent years he had become interested in the history of technology. In a ground-breaking paper, published in 1998, he demonstrated how guilds had contributed significantly to the formation of human capital in pre-industrial Europe. An edited volume, currently in press, elaborates on this point by demonstrating how guilds were at times making major contributions to innovations in high-skill industries. Over recent years Larry had also become involved with the emerging global history, participating in the Global Economic History Network run from LSE, and keen to use his knowledge of European economic development to shed comparative light on economic transitions in Asia and elsewhere. The interaction of institutions and economic development remained a permanent feature of his work.

As a teacher Larry combined intellectual rigour with an ability to communicate and relate to students. His expectations of his students were high, but his taught courses were invariably regarded as tough but also rewarding.  For his research students, Larry was an often inspirational guide,  who offered them unstinting academic and personal support at all times. All who have worked with him will remember him not just as an academic star, but as a man of integrity, humour and compassion. The community at LSE, and the broader community of economic history, is much the poorer for his passing. Our thoughts are with Larry's partner, Rita Astuti, his son, Sean, and Larry's brother, Mark Epstein.