Elinor Ostrom dies at 78; first woman to win Nobel in economics


Elinor Ostrom, an Indiana University political economist who in 2009 became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics by demonstrating that local communities can manage imperiled natural resources as well as or better than the government or private business interests, died of pancreatic cancer Tuesday in Bloomington, Ind., according to the university. She was 78.

Ostrom, a Los Angeles native who taught at Indiana University for nearly five decades, made her reputation by challenging a concept in the social sciences called the “tragedy of the commons.” Ecologist Garrett Hardin coined the phrase in a famous 1968 paper that argued that the depletion or pollution of shared resources such as forests and streams could be avoided only through top-down government regulation.

By studying diverse groups around the world, including Japanese fishermen and Swiss cheese makers, Ostrom showed that it was wrong-headed and often counterproductive to assume that those who used the resources could not set their own conservation plan. She stressed the importance of working on multiple levels to solve complex problems such as global warming.

“What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people versus just having somebody in Washington … make a rule,” Ostrom said the day her Nobel was announced.

Ostrom wrote several influential books, including “Governing the Commons” (1990), which Whole Earth magazine called “the intellectual field guide” for conservationists involved with small communities.

With her husband, Vincent, she established a research center at Indiana University that became a hub for scholars and scientists around the world interested in collective action to solve pressing environmental problems.

“Her attitude was that public policy is not just something done to the people by government officials but that public policy is done by the people too,” said Michael McGinnis, director of the university’s Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

Ostrom shared the $1.4-million Nobel Prize for economics with Oliver Williamson of UC Berkeley. Working independently, they each showed how economics could be expanded beyond the conventional analysis of market prices.

For Ostrom, winning the prestigious prize was especially gratifying because of the struggles she faced to establish herself as a woman in a nontraditional field.

Born in Los Angeles on Aug. 7, 1933, she was the daughter of an out-of-work Hollywood set designer and his musician wife who divorced when she was a young child. She remained with her mother, who struggled financially during the Depression and World War II.

Neither of her parents went to college and did not consider it important for Ostrom. Her lucky break came when her mother managed to enroll her in Beverly Hills High School, which was just across the border from their home in L.A. “It was a little hard to be the poor kid in the rich kids’ school,” Ostrom recalled in the Indianapolis Star in 2009. But she excelled academically and went on to UCLA, where she studied political science, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954.

She married a classmate, Charles Scott, and moved to Boston, where she worked to put him through law school. “I was thinking of doing a Ph.D.,” she told the Ottawa Citizen a few years ago, “and he was not too enthusiastic.” They divorced and Ostrom returned to UCLA, where she earned a master’s in 1962 and a doctorate in 1965, both in political science.

Vincent Ostrom, who taught economics and political science, was one of her professors. They were married in 1963 and two years later joined Indiana University’s faculty. She often noted that the main reason she was hired was because the university couldn’t find anyone else to teach American government at the highly unpopular hour of 7:30 a.m.

The Ostroms donated millions of dollars to Indiana University, including her Nobel Prize funds. In 1973 they founded the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Her husband is her only immediate survivor.