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Elinor Ostrom, Only Female With Nobel in Economics, Dies

Elinor Ostrom,  Nobel Laureate in Economics and professor at Indiana University, speaks during a conference in New Delhi on Jan. 5, 2011. Photographer: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images
Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in Economics and professor at Indiana University, speaks during a conference in New Delhi on Jan. 5, 2011. Photographer: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

June 12 (Bloomberg) -- Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics and a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, has died. She was 78.

Ostrom died today from pancreatic cancer at IU Health Bloomington Hospital, the school said in a statement.

She received the Nobel in 2009 for work showing that informal groups of ordinary people can sometimes manage natural resources such as forests and lakes better than governments or private companies.

“Indiana University has lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure with the passing of Elinor Ostrom,” Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie said. “Throughout her lifetime, Lin has brought distinction to the university through her groundbreaking work, which received the ultimate recognition in 2009.”

Time magazine this year named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Elinor Awan was born on Aug. 7, 1933, in Los Angeles, and raised by a divorced mother during the Great Depression. Because her family’s house was located “at the lower edge of Beverly Hills,” Ostrom’s mother arranged for her to attend Beverly Hills High School, where she joined the debate team and competed around the state, according to her autobiography on the Nobel Prize website.

‘Different Perspective’

“While it was a challenge being a poor kid in a rich kid’s school, it did give me a different perspective on the future,” Ostrom wrote. “Since 90 percent of the students in Beverly Hills High School went to college, it appeared going to college was the ‘normal’ thing to do.”

Ostrom enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles, becoming the first member of her immediate family to attend college. After graduating in three years, she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science from UCLA.

While there she joined a research team studying Southern California’s water industry, a project overseen by Vincent Ostrom, an associate professor of political science 14 years her senior, whom she married in 1963, according to a profile in Finance & Development, published by the International Monetary Fund.

‘Tagged Along’

He moved to Indiana in 1965 when IU offered him a position as a full professor. She “tagged along” as she wrote in her Nobel autobiography, and the university’s political science department hired her as a visiting assistant professor.

She became a full professor at the school in 1974, and was president of the American Political Science Association in 1996 and 1997.

Calling herself a political economist, Ostrom said that her work should encourage citizens that they have a “capacity and power” beyond the bureaucracies that govern them.

The other 2009 Nobel winner in economics was Oliver Williamson, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He won the prize “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm,” according to the Nobel Prize website.

“She had a wonderful sense of joy about the importance of her work that she successfully communicated to others,” Williamson said today in an e-mail. ”Her person and her research will be remembered forever.”

Ostrom is survived by her husband, Vincent, a professor emeritus of political science at IU. The couple founded the school’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Kowalski in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Wellisz at

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