Nef, John Ulric, 1899-

Alternative names
Birth 1899-07-13
Death 1988-12-25

Biographical notes:

Professor of economic history. Professor, Department of Economics, University of Chicago, 1929-1950; chairman and professor, Committee on Social Thought, 1945-1964.

From the description of Papers, 1909- [ca. 1970]. (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52246436

Writer, historian.

From the description of Reminiscences of John Ulric Nef : oral history, 1969. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 122451879

Dr. John Ulric Nef, Jr. (1899-1988), though formally trained as an economic historian, is best known for scholarship which falls under the rubric of "cultural history." Nef primarily studied the economic, cultural, and military history of Western Europe since the end of the 15th Century.

He was born in Chicago, the only son of John U. Nef, Sr., whom William Rainey Harper brought from Clark University in 1891 as head professor of chemistry at the newly-formed University of Chicago. After his father's death in 1915 - his mother, Louise Comstock Nef, died in 1909 - John Nef lived as a member of the household of his guardian, George Herbert Mead. While there, he met Elinor Henry Castle, a niece of the Meads living with them while attending the University of Chicago. John and Elinor were married in 1921. They remained married until Elinor's death in 1953.

John Nef spent his first year of college at the University of Chicago, but he completed his work at Harvard (S.B., 1920). After several years of European travel with his wife, he returned to the United States and completed his Ph.D. at the Robert Brookings Graduate School, Washington, D.C. (a precursor of the Brookings Institution), in 1927. His first academic appointment was as Assistant Professor of Economics at Swarthmore College. In 1929, he was appointed to the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago; shortly thereafter his first book, The Rise of the British Coal Industry, appeared.

The emergence of the field of economic history provided Nef with relative freedom from the usual constraints of being identified with a single discipline. Consequently, he was able to follow his inclination to study civilization from an historical perspective, which related economics, philosophy, ethics, and the arts. In 1941-42 in association with Robert Maynard Hutchins, Robert Redfield, and Frank H. Knight, he founded and became executive secretary of a new interdisciplinary committee: the Committee on Social Thought. The idea for the Committee - originally conceived as a "Committee for the Study of Civilization" - was to foster original research without regard for conventional academic boundaries. Scholars and artists were invited to lecture under the auspices of the Committee and students were provided with both formal and informal opportunities to exchange ideas with these distinguished visitors. As an example of the scope of the Committee, participants during Mr. Nef's tenure included: H.S. Bennett, Jacques de Bourbon-Busset, Alfred Cobbon, Marc Chagall, Colin Clark, T.S. Eliot, Friedrich von Hayek, Marshall Hodgson, Harold Innis, Ernst Kantorowitz, Ernst Krenek, Jacques Maritain, Maurice Powicke, Artur Schnabel, Arnold Schoenberg, Andre Siegfried, Igor Stravinsky, R.H. Tawney, Arnold Toynbee, and Amos Wilder. Nef served as the Committee's chairman from 1945 to 1964.

During this time, opposition to the educational philosophy of President Hutchins arose, particularly in the natural science and philosophy departments. In 1944, the issue crystallized when a body of the University Senate sent a "Memorial" to the Board of Trustees expressing lack of confidence in the educational policies of President Hutchins. Both privately and publicly, John Nef was in the forefront of those supporting Robert Hutchins, and he remained supportive until Hutchins retired from the University in 1951.

After the end of World War II, John Nef shared with his friend Artur Schnabel reflections he had written about the need for cultivating international humanitarianism. Schnabel advised Nef to circulate his reflections to a wider audience. In its final form, the document "A Manifesto," was circulated among and signed by many distinguished citizens. It was printed by Henry Regnery and Company under the title Above All Nations is Humanity.

Throughout his life, John Nef had a special affection for French life and letters. In addition to honors bestowed upon him by the French Government (including being made an officer of the French Legion of Honor), his work has received particularly substantial acclaim from French scholars. In 1948, he was invited to lecture at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, and, in 1953, he returned to Paris to give a series of lectures at the Collège de France.

In 1958, the Center for Human Understanding was established by the University of Chicago under Mr. Nef's direction, and he served as chairman during the ten years of its existence. Until he retired from the University faculty in 1964, the headquarters of the Center for Human Understanding was at Chicago; from 1964 until 1968 the Center was maintained in Washington, D.C. Two books, the outgrowth of conferences held at the Center, appeared under Mr. Nef's editorship: Bridges of Human Understanding (1964) and Towards World Community (1968). In 1968 the Center for Human Understanding was formally dissolved and its functions taken over by the John and Evelyn Nef Foundation, founded in 1964 by John Nef and his second wife, Evelyn Stefansson Nef.

John Nef retired as professor and chairman of the Committee on Social thought in 1967. Shortly thereafter the Nefs moved to Washington, D.C., where Nef remained a member of a visiting committee of social scientists at the University of Chicago. In 1980, Nef was decorated with the University of Chicago Medal - the University's highest honor. He died in Washington, D.C. in 1988.

From the guide to the Nef, John Ulric, Jr. Papers, 1840-2008, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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