Wichita's Nobel Prize Winner, Vernon L. Smith
Wichita native Vernon L. Smith was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002. Receiving the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2002, Smith was recognized for "having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms," according to Nobelprize.org.
About Vernon L. Smith
Smith, who began his education in a rural school near the farm town of Milan, KS (about 45 miles from Wichita), attended Allison Intermediate School and North High School in Wichita. By high school, however, his grades did not reflect that of a scholar.
“I was a lousy student at North, from 1940-44, but that was not their fault. I had been an excellent student up to eighth and ninth grade; after that I just was not interested in school; ‘girls’ as we said it in those days were far more interesting,” Smith said.
In addition, Smith had taken a job at Boeing in June of 1943, proving another distraction from his school work. Despite his slipping grades, Smith was still resolved to attend college.
“I quit my job at Boeing in August of 1945 and went to Friends for 15 months straight. And made up for my sloth!” Smith said. “When I spoke years ago at North, I said that you can overcome poor performance but it takes hard work."
From Friends, Smith went to Caltech in 1945. Beginning his career at Caltech as a physics major, Smith switched to electrical engineering along the way, still graduating as scheduled in 1949. Smith’s courses at Caltech were rigorous, requiring study both day and night, during the week and on weekends. Though he likened Caltech to a meat grinder, Smith felt privileged to take courses and hear lectures from the likes of Linus Pauling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Bertrand Russell and several others. As a senior at Caltech, Smith enrolled in an Intro to Econ at Caltech that would shape the rest of his career. Finding that economics and physics were, in some regards, very similar, Smith was intrigued.
Smith went to the University of Kansas to pursue a MA in economics, allowing him the opportunity to further pursue economics if he so chose, and he did. Conducting his first experiment in 1956, publishing his first article in 1962 and gaining attention from his economic profession by 1980, Smith had found his niche. His work even founded a subfield of economics. Despite his success, Smith says that at the time, most people felt that his work “wasn’t economics” and that many still hold these beliefs about experimental economics today.
Winning the Nobel Prize
Smith’s work continued to draw attention. Though he says that you never know that you are being considered for a Nobel Prize, Smith got a pretty good idea that he was in the running when he was asked for a nomination in 1978.
“I assumed someone nominated me before 1978 because nominees are canvassed for nominations,” Smith said, “I knew I had been nominated, but hundreds are.”
Smith nominated William Vickery who would receive the award 18 years later. For Smith, the process took 24 years.
“It is important that your work be acknowledged and also that you live a long time,” he said.
Because he’d been asked for a nomination so long ago, Smith’s reaction to receiving the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences was simply relief.
“[I was] Relieved, as my friends had been predicting it for years and I felt that I was somehow letting them down,” he said.
Fifteen Years Later
Since winning the Nobel Prize in 2002, Smith has continued his work.
“I had already been doing a lot of traveling and lectures. What was new was that I had to turn down many invitations,” he said.
According to Smith, keeping up with his work and writing is his first priority. His book, “Discovery a Memoir”, released in 2008, will be expanded in the upcoming “Narratives of Discovery”.
“As I said in my Stockholm toast: ‘Work is love made visible.’”, Smith said, attributing his quote to Kahlil Gibran.
Smith says he still likes to get back to Wichita now and then, though his only family member in the area is in Winfield now.
“There is no place like home when you grow up happy for your first 18 years,” Smith said of Wichita.