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Hoyt, Elizabeth Ellis

Published onJul 30, 2021
Hoyt, Elizabeth Ellis

(January 27, 1893 - Nov. 22, 1980)

Quick Facts

A long-time faculty member of the Department of Economics, Hoyt was a prominent figure in consumer economics and economic development. She is featured in the first issue of Who’s Who in American Women and invented the Consumer Price Index.

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

When in the late 1960s what is now Heady Hall was built, one of its most significant features was a reading room. Designed primarily for graduate students, it was a room that contained a browsing space for current professional journals, bound volumes of past issues of these journals, classic books, and a reserve desk for graduate courses. It was heavily used. On the south wall of the reading room were portraits of faculty members who had played a significant role in giving the Department of Economics its reputation as the premier academic department for agricultural economics and a solid department of “general” economics. With a single exception, all of the persons shown were Distinguished Professors, a rank held by only about five percent of the faculty of ISU. The exception was Elizabeth Hoyt. She was excluded from a distinguished professorship because she retired before the rank was established, but was nevertheless recognized by the department as being worthy of that title.

Even in middle age, Elizabeth Hoyt was the epitome of the “New England Schoolgirl”—scrubbed, no-nonsense, earnest. She was born in 1893, in Augusta, Maine, the youngest of three children. Her mother died when she was pre-pubescent; her father never re-married. She never married, though there is a hint of a romance in her diaries. She never regretted her single status except that she said she would have liked to have had children.

Dr. Hoyt entered Boston College in 1910 and matriculated with an AB degree three years later, in 1913. She worked for the National Industrial Conference Board in New York City from 1915 until 1921. While there, she invented—if that’s the word—what is now the Consumer Price Index. She was an instructor at Wellesley College from 1921 -1923. She earned an MA degree from Radcliffe College in 1924 and the PhD from Harvard in 1925. She apparently went straight from her Harvard degree to Iowa State College (now University), where she began as an associate professor in 1925 and was promoted to professor in 1927. She formally retired from ISU in 1963, although she continued to maintain an office and produce her scholarly work until her death in 1980.

One can only speculate as to why Dr. Hoyt was hired by the Department of Economics in 1925. In those days, with rare exceptions, women in higher education were confined to colleges of education and home economics. Since Hoyt’s area of specialization was the nascent field of consumption economics, my guess is that an accommodation was reached between the College of Home Economics and the Department of Economics to have a bone fide economist teach economics to the young women of home ec, especially if that economist was female and a Harvard PhD. Add to this that Iowa State’s agricultural economists, under which consumption could easily be subsumed, were probably the best in the world, and the fit seems a natural.

In 1928 Elizabeth Hoyt took a quarter off (Iowa State did not go on the semester system until the 1960s) and traveled around the world, crossing oceans by steamship and continents by train. She visited virtually all continents in the world. In particular she was in “Peking” (i.e., Beijing) during a famine, where people were “literally dropping in the streets.” She described this as the “most important experience of my life.” [If I may be forgiven a personal note, she once told me that she took the Trans-Siberia Express across Asia, and when she reached Berlin, where people seemed prosperous, well-fed and happy, the contrast was so great that she wept.]

Her experience in Beijing changed her life by gradually shifting her scholarly interests to a passion for economic development. It was obvious to her that the only way for many peoples to get enough to eat was for poor nations to develop their economic base—to increase their gross domestic products (GDPs). This shift is apparent in her academic output. The books she wrote, five in number, began with Primitive Trade (1926, republished in 1968) and ended with Choice and Destiny of Nations (1969). Between the books there was a steady outpouring of journal articles—more than 100 in number. For the most part, these articles did not appear in main-line journals, although a few did. They contain no mathematics or geometry. But they anticipate by decades the field of economic development, which was not formally recognized until it became popular in the post-World War II era.

In addition to economic development, Dr. Hoyt had a passionate concern for international peace, freedom from hunger, and economic education. In the academic year 1950-5l, she went to Africa on a Fulbright grant, which she spent largely at Makere College in Uganda. Her interests in basic education for entire populations led to a library in South Africa being named for her. She also had a considerable interest in educating American Indians.

Elizabeth Hoyt was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from Radcliffe College and was included in the first edition of Who’s Who in American Women. She was active in the Friends Service Committee, Catholic Relief Service Charities, and the Child Welfare League of America, and carried on extensive correspondence with many child welfare, food, peace and health organizations. Her extensive correspondence, pictures of her travels, and diaries, are available in the Parks Library at Iowa State University.

Despite being a Harvard PhD, a full professor at a major university, and an internationally recognized economist, Elizabeth Hoyt was always addressed as “Miss” Hoyt, thereby ignoring her truly outstanding professional accomplishments in favor of underscoring her spinsterhood. To her credit, she didn’t seem to mind.

Selected Sources

Elizabeth Ellis Hoyt Papers, RS 13/9/51, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

20th Century Women at Iowa State, online exhibition, ISU Library.

Hoyt, Elizabeth Ellis. "Value of family living on Iowa farms," Bulletin: Vol. 24 : No. 281, Article 1 (1930).

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