Kenneth H. Parsons, a life-long student of institutional economics and a pioneer in the study of economic development, died in Madison, Wis. Wednesday, Oct. 21, after a short illness at the age of 95. The University of Wisconsin-Madison economist was an international expert on land tenure and agrarian reform.
Parsons was one of the first agricultural economists concerned with land tenure institutions as important factors in economic development. In 1947, he made a world-wide study of land tenure systems for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Parsons was instrumental in convening the first World Land Tenure Conference at the UW-Madison in 1951.
From 1949 to 1950, Parsons was the chief economist for the agricultural section of the Marshall Plan”s Economic Cooperation Administration, headquartered in Paris. There, he helped develop policies for building agricultural facilities in Marshall Plan countries.
After returning from Paris in 1950 and until his retirement from the UW-Madison in 1974, Parsons divided his time between university duties and service to various national and international organizations. A consultant for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Ford Foundation, Parsons conducted research in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, India and Latin America on the economic implications of land tenure and land reform.
Parsons” insights and methods grew from an intellectual base that included economics, agriculture, philosophy, social psychology and law. As a UW-Madison student in 1929, Parsons was attracted by the ideas of Professor John R. Commons, one of the premier institutional economists of his time. During the Progressive Era in Wisconsin, state government and social scientists worked closely on political and economic reforms. During the New Deal, Commons and his students played major roles in the development and administration of Social Security and workers compensation. At Commons” request, Parsons contributed to and helped Commons complete his last book, The Economics of Collective Action, published in 1950. During his career, Parsons continued to interpret and extend Commons” ideas and apply them to development in the Third World. Parsons believed that family ownership of farms was the most productive system for growing food, and was a strong critic of collectivized agriculture.
A native of Kokomo, Ind., Parsons” early years on the family farm led to a life-long interest in agriculture and its role in economic development. After receiving his bachelor”s degree from Butler University in 1928, Parsons came to the UW-Madison to continue his studies. He worked as an economic analyst with the federal government in Washington, D.C. from 1931 to 1936. There he served with the Federal Farm Board, the Farm Credit Administration, and the USDA”s Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Resettlement Administration.
Parsons joined the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences faculty in 1937 as an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, now the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. He received his doctorate from the UW-Madison in 1940.
Early in his professional career, Parsons distinguished himself with innovative research on family farms and the family life cycle. His publications included “Keeping the Farm in the Family” and “How Family Labor Affects Wisconsin Farming.”
The author of more than 60 journal articles and 14 book chapters, Parsons was also a distinguished and inspiring teacher. Many of his students went on to important positions with international agencies, governments and universities around the world.
Parsons was active in the UW-Madison”s Land Tenure Center, taking particular interest in Central America, where many of his students carried out research.
Parsons was a member of the American Economics Association, the Society for International Development, and the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA). He was elected an AAEA fellow in 1973, and received the Veblen-Commons Award from the Association for Evolutionary Economics in 1985.
Parsons is survived by a sister, Edith LaRowe of Greentown, Ind.; a brother, Howard Parsons of Madison, Conn.; two daughters, Priscilla Soucek of Princeton, N.J. and Patricia Kay of Bethesda, Md.; two grandchildren, Peter Kay of Tacoma, Wash. and Laura Kay Bennett of Vienna, Va.; and several nieces and nephews. His wife, Pauline Livingston, died in 1987.
The family requested that memorials be made to the University of Wisconsin Foundation, Kenneth and Pauline Parsons Fund.