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Robert L. Bishop, 96; economist was professor, dean at MIT

Dr. Bishop graduated from Harvard and spent 44 years at MIT. He retired in 1986.
Dr. Bishop graduated from Harvard and spent 44 years at MIT. He retired in 1986.

Robert Bishop’s brilliance as an economist, colleagues said, crystallized in the quality of students who passed through MIT’s economics department during his tenure.

During 44 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a professor, chairman of the economics department, and dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, he helped transform the economics department into one of the field’s brightest beacons.

Those who worked with Dr. Bishop remembered him as a careful teacher and a painstakingly fair and logical administrator. Those who counted him among their close friends remembered him as a quiet man with a brilliant, inquisitive mind, said Robert M. Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics who worked with Dr. Bishop for many years.

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“If you asked me to name some of the smartest economists I’ve ever known, I would include Bishop,” Solow said. “When Bob joined the MIT economics department it was a nothing. He was integral in building the department from what was a backwater into one of the best around.”

Dr. Bishop died of congestive heart failure Feb. 7 in the Neville Center for skilled nursing and rehabilitation in Cambridge, just a few miles from the two universities where he spent most of his life as a student and a teacher. He was 96 and previously lived in Wellesley for many years.

A microeconomic theorist whose publications examined topics such as game theory and public finance, Dr. Bishop joined MIT’s faculty in 1942.

Surrounded by the likes of Solow and Paul Samuelson, also a Nobel laureate in economics, Dr. Bishop was in many ways more famous on MIT’s campus for the things he did not publish than the scholarly articles he did, Solow said.

What became known as the “Bishop Notes,” a set of blue mimeographed writings Dr. Bishop made for a graduatelevel economics class, were a legend in the department, Solow said.

“The ‘Bishop Notes’ were like a bible for introductory students,” he said. “Other teachers wander around, but with Bishop every step follows the step before and the logic is laid out for you. The ‘Bishop Notes’ were characterized by absolute clarity.”

Dr. Bishop, who was chairman of the economics department from 1958 to 1965, was named dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences in 1964. He held the post until 1973, when he returned to teaching until retiring in 1986.

Solow said Dr. Bishop was an unfailingly fair administrator. Under his guidance, MIT’s economics department shot up in national rankings, and he took great pleasure in that success.

“The role of alleged ‘boss’ in an academic department is a duty rather that a privilege,” Dr. Bishop wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “But it has its satisfactions, if one can help maintain a favorable environment for a remarkably creative and distinguished group of colleagues.”

The oldest of three children, Robert Lyle Bishop was born in St. Louis, and was 2 when his family moved to New York City.

As a boy growing up in Manhattan, he was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Birch Wathen Lenox School, a private college preparatory school in New York City. He transferred to the local public high school when his family moved to the suburb of Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, and could no longer afford the train fare to send him back into the city for school, said a nephew, Dick Williams of Somerville.

Dr. Bishop graduated from Manhasset High School in 1933 and went to Harvard College, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1937.

As a young man, he passed his passion for academic excellence along to his younger siblings. He inspired his sister, Betty, to attend Cornell University, and his brother, Harry, to attend Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Bishop’s nephew said.

After graduating from Harvard, Dr. Bishop spent a year in Europe on a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship. During the rise of Nazism, he taught himself German and smuggled artwork from Vienna to Paris, his nephew said.

Although Dr. Bishop had political and philosophical views about World War II, “he didn’t wear them on his sleeve,” Williams said. The smuggling “was just him trying to do the right thing and help out friends.”

Dr. Bishop returned to the United States in 1938 for graduate work. He spent a year at Princeton University before settling down again at Harvard, from which he received a master’s in economics. He graduated with a doctorate from Harvard in 1949.

While in graduate school, Dr. Bishop met Joan Frances Fiss. According to family lore, Williams said, she initially was reluctant to accept Dr. Bishop’s marriage proposal.

He sent her a dozen roses every day until she said yes, and they married in September 1942.

For decades, until Mrs. Bishop died 1981, the couple took pleasure in entertaining friends and some of the area’s most prominent academics. Dr. Bishop regaled guests with his renditions of operas, despite not always understanding the language he was singing, said his nephew Bob Williams of Alexandria, Va.

“There was one party where my aunt and uncle hosted a group from Japan,” he said. “And Uncle Bob was across the room with this Japanese woman singing an opera in Japanese from memory. She was just thrilled.”

A quick learner, Dr. Bishop listened to records repeatedly until he memorized them, Dick Williams said.

In later years, Dr. Bishop developed a passion for number games. He published several complex numbers problems in journals and was fascinated by mathematical puzzles, Bob Williams said.

“It was the sort of thing he did for fun that would really intimidate the rest of us,” he said.

Dr. Bishop was not shy about sharing his love of numbers when numerical coincidences occurred, Dick Williams said.

“He would always send my mother birthday cards saying, ‘Congratulations, you have achieved a prime number,’ or some observation like that,” he said.

A service will be announced for Dr. Bishop, who in addition to his nephews leaves his sister, Betty Williams of Indianapolis.

Solow said Dr. Bishop never sought public recognition for his successes, and that his legacy of excellence will live on quietly, like his “Bishop Notes,” among those who knew him well.

“He did not give the outward impression of being as smart as he was,” Solow said. “He understood things without always letting on that he did, but he was ticking away behind the scenes all the time.”

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