“What we have done is … to put business in its broader political and cultural setting…. We are not out to defend business, but to try to do an impartial, scholarly investigation of an important American institution.”
– Henrietta Larson (1894–1983), Harvard business historian
For many decades, corporate histories were dominated by simplistic notions of big-is-bad and capitalist exploitation. Yes, Ida Tarbell documented many innovations and economies from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, but she jumped to examples to paint the Standard Trust as ultimately evil in its exploitation of competitors.
Much “Robber Baron” history followed in the decades after Tarbell, failing to comprehend the advantages of industrialization and to differentiate free-market entrepreneurship on the one hand from corporate/government cronyism on the other. As Harvard business historian Thomas McCraw would later explain:
Without the benefit of a vocabulary that distinguished conceptually between center and peripheral firms, productive and allocative efficiency, vertical and horizontal integration, economies of scale and transaction cost, these observers had only their personal sensibilities and political ideologies to guide them. And both their personal and political values concerning the nature of liberty, the meaning of opportunity, and the promise of America were directly threatened by the trusts.
Then came a new generation of scholars who understood business conceptually. The great scholar who explained enterprise in terms of economic incentives and firm strategy was Alfred Chandler. As I explained in Capitalism at Work (p. 156):
Never before had a historian analyzed industrial giants “without turning an ideological hair.” Chandler’s focus on dynamic performance was so clinical that the traditional question of good (“industrial statesman”) or bad (“robber baron”) was bypassed. Business change could now be comprehended in terms that are familiar in the modern business vernacular: technology, economies of scale and scope, and logistics.
Another giant of business thought brought the new business understanding to the biggest industry of all, petroleum. This was Henrietta Larson. Armed with good theory, and with a passion for understanding and excellence, Professor Larson organized and co-authored two classic business treatises in energy:
Larson chronicled how business problems inspired solutions, time and again. And she showed how regulation played into the process in a factual, illuminating way. Her personal story was one of pioneering in academia, captured in this tribute by Carolyn Nitz in History’s Women:
What was necessary in the early 1900’s for a young girl to go from a small-town in Minnesota to the faculty of one of the finest universities in the world? The life of Henrietta Larson, the first woman promoted to full professor at the Harvard School of Business Administration and a pioneer in the field of business history, might give us some clues.
Henrietta was born in Preston, Minnesota on September 24, 1894 to a family that included four daughters and one son. Her parents, both children of Norwegian immigrants and devout Lutherans, valued hard work, perseverance and education. It was assumed that all five children would to go college.
When asked why he wanted his daughters to attend college, even though they would probably get married and have children, H.O. Larson replied that it was even more important for women to be educated than men, because women raised the children. True to her parents’ values, Henrietta earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University in New York City.
After completing her formal education, Henrietta taught for a year at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Then she applied for a position at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The university president said that she would be hired if no man could be found to fill the position. It was Cardondale’s good fortune that Henrietta was ultimately offered the job, because she was the only Ph.D. on the faculty.
The chair of the history department, whose education had ended after the eighth grade, failed to see the importance of Henrietta’s use of essay exams or research papers in her teaching. His students always earned passing grades. By the end of her first semester at Carbondale, Henrietta had failed twenty percent of her students! She expected to lose her job, but the university president saw the value of her methods.
In addition to teaching duties, Henrietta was given administrative responsibilities to help raise teaching standards for the whole university.
During her second year at Carbondale, Henrietta was contacted by Norman S.B. Gras, one of her graduate school professors. Dr. Gras was now at the Harvard School of Business Administration, where he held the first chair in the nation in business history. He asked Henrietta to come to Harvard as his research assistant, help him establish the field of business history, and develop study and research materials.
Henrietta gave a lot of thought to this offer. Several factors weighed against it. She would have to leave the Midwest, give up teaching, and accept a pay cut of one-third. The challenges and opportunities were too great to ignore, however, so in 1928, Henrietta headed for Harvard.
Because of Harvard’s policy toward women, Henrietta was not able to teach, but she supervised master’s and doctoral students and lectured occasionally in addition to her research work. In the 1950’s, she taught business history, although it had to be done under the name of a young man on the faculty.
In 1961, a year before her retirement, Henrietta was promoted to full professor. She was the first woman at the Business School to achieve this rank, and only the fourth woman in Harvard’s history to do so.
During her thirty-four years at Harvard, Henrietta’s devotion to scholarly integrity and impartiality did an enormous amount to establish business history as an accepted field of study. One of the crown jewels of her career was in helping to write the first analytical history of a major American corporation, Standard Oil of New Jersey. When she knew that enough company records were available and that their work would not be censored, Henrietta and a team of scholars began the project.
Many years of hard work resulted in a multi-volume set of books chronicling the history of Standard Oil of New Jersey. This work was praised by business historians for its critical, analytical approach which placed a major corporation in its historical context.
Because of her impartiality and integrity, Henrietta was known to criticize scholars who she felt molded history to fit their own philosophies. She spoke and wrote of the need to look at all sides of an issue and to think clearly: “As for our thought, if it is to deal with the complex problems that press upon us, it must be able to deal with realities, and to make judgments about them in the light of values that are important and enduring.”
Regarding the role of the business historian, she wrote, “What we have done is . . . to put business in its broader political and cultural setting. .. We are not out to defend business, but to try to do an impartial, scholarly investigation of an important American institution.”
Retirement from Harvard in 1962 did not mean an end to Henrietta’s career. She finished work on the Standard Oil project, edited manuscripts for the series of books called Harvard Studies in Business History, and spent six months in India as a consulting business historian.
Along the way, she received many awards and honors which recognized the excellence of her work. The Distinguished Service Award which the Harvard Business School presented to her in 1979 stated, “This gallant lady’s enduring self-reliance and quiet willingness to work with others has prospered the cause of business history at Harvard and across the civilized world.”
The life of Henrietta Larson is a chronicle of hard work, perseverance, and a sense of confidence in her own worth. These elements, provided by her upbringing and her own efforts, helped her succeed in an occupation dominated by men, make lasting contributions to the field of business history, and help forge a pathway for women in higher education.
“The Larson Sisters: Three Careers in Contrast,” by Carol Jenson, in Women of Minnesota, Selected Biographical Essays, edited by Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter
“Henrietta Larson, An Appreciation,” by Ralph W. & Muriel E. Hidy, in The Business History Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 1962
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Thursday, September 1, 1983
Newsweek, January 2, 1961
Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, November 17, 1963
Conversations with Emilie Larson, Northfield, Minnesota, niece of Henrietta Larson