background

Anne Williams

Offered by James Hughes, Thomas Sowell Professor of Economics (with help from Mr. Schwinn), on May 7, 2007

A picture of anyone’s life and career is, shall we say, made up of many pieces, all of which fit together to form a whole. Of course, we can never see in advance what the final picture will be and we may be puzzled along the way about how the pieces will all fit together.

But with the passage of time, The Invisible Hand fits each piece into it proper place. Picasso had his Blue Period. And so, as we might try to understand that time in his life, in his late teens and living away from home for the first time, we might group together those pieces of his life containing various shades of blue.


Anne Williams, photographed by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

And so it is with Anne Williams. In her late teens and living away from home for the first time, it was at Smith College that Anne’s interest turned towards the dismal science, known more widely as economics. But with Anne, economics was not a passing interest, but helped shape the many pieces of her life to follow.

Anne graduated from Smith in 1965 with a major in economics. After a short time at the World Bank, Anne journeyed to India for two years as part of the Family Planning Program of the Peace Corps. We see Anne’s early interest in economics beginning to connect with issues of population growth and economic development. Returning to the U.S., Anne worked for a year at the Brookings Institution and another year at the Federal Reserve Board. Then, guided yet again by The Invisible Hand, Anne turned westward to pursue economics and demography at the University of Chicago. It was here that she had the opportunity to work for no fewer than three future Nobel Laureates — Theodore Schultz, Gary Becker, and James Heckman. Professor Schultz took Anne under his wing, and she received her Ph.D. in 1976, writing her dissertation on Fertility and Reproductive Loss.

Anne joined the Economics faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975, and also served as a Research Associate in the UPenn Population Studies Center. While on leave from Penn she served as the Research Director of the Select Committee on Population for the U.S. House of Representatives, leading to the publication as principal author of Domestic Consequences of United States Population Change. This was followed by a three volume, edited compendium of papers for the Committee and a co-authored book on population growth and economic development for the National Research Council.

In 1981, Anne was hired to chair the Economics Department at Bates and to provide leadership to what was then a small, five-member department. A hallmark of her leadership was the fairness with which she guided the department and encouragement she gave to colleagues. Her tenure as chair was marked by notable growth in both the size of the faculty and the number of majors. And, perhaps foreshadowing her development as a historian, Anne’s tenure as chair was memorialized by her development of the most comprehensive, meticulous departmental records imaginable. While I am sure that it was a disappointment to Anne that none of her successors shared her zeal — or her storage capacity — for record-keeping, we all have benefited from Anne’s unparalleled ability to settle an argument with a quick spreadsheet, or to produce the number — and names — of the Economics majors from any class during her tenure, and most afterwards. Successive department chairs have been saved, more than once, when they found themselves in need of guidance in how things had been done and, more importantly, should be done.

Just as it was Anne’s natural propensity to make detailed records of everything, she employed her organizational skills (i.e., human capital) toward assembling the scattered pieces that make up the history of jigsaw puzzles. Anne tells us that the date and inventor of the original jigsaw puzzle is still debated, it is often attributed to John Spilsbury, who was manufacturing them by 1762—as another Englishman, Adam Smith, was organizing his thoughts for his book The Wealth of Nations, to be published in the following decade. Coincidence? You be the judge. In any case, Anne’s interest in the history of jigsaw puzzles and the people who cut them and enjoyed putting them back together, fits easily with the enjoyment Anne experienced doing jigsaw puzzles as a child.

While Anne has never even hinted that it might be so, today she is recognized as the leading historian and collector of antique jigsaw puzzles. Anne’s research on jigsaw puzzles, the history of the firms that manufactured them, and their cultural role, most notably during the Great Depression, culminated in her book, The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History. New York Times crossword editor and NPR puzzle master Will Shortz writes in his foreword to her book that Anne is “the world’s foremost expert on jigsaw puzzles…” offers the judgment that “Anne probably has the largest collection of antique jigsaw puzzles in the world….”

Anne’s research has been on display in several museums. She has curated and written catalogs for three major exhibitions, including the exhibit, Pieces in Place: Two Hundred Years of Jigsaw Puzzles, at the Olin Art Museum, and more recent exhibits at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts and the Katonah Museum of Art. Her collection and research have also been featured in notable publications such as Smithsonian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Forbes Magazine, Yankee, and Readers Digest. I should also mention that Anne is the only member of the Bates faculty, and perhaps the only economist in history, to have made a special guest appearance on Martha Stewart’s television show. Of course, this was before the scandal that led to Martha Stewart’s unfortunate incarceration. I don’t know if Anne provided Martha with any puzzles to help her past the time in the big house, but it would have been fitting, given Anne’s concern for the welfare of others, no matter what their social status.

We all know that it is good when our research informs our lives as teachers, and so it is with Anne. Anne has been a wonderful teacher, devoted to her students. When called upon, Anne took advantage of the First Year Seminar program in 1996, continuing with a Short Term Unit in 1998 to involve her students in an oral history project, recording the experiences of people who lived in Lewiston and Auburn during the Great Depression, preserving their stories in two impressive volumes. Her students interviewed 45 people over the course of these two classes and, in addition to the transcriptions of their interviews, wrote individual reports on “Working Conditions,” “Prohibition,” “Ethnic Relations,” “Clubs and Social Life,” and covered the conditions of women during the 1930s and the important role that music has played in the history of the Franco-American community.

And finally, we should note that the earliest jigsaw puzzles were “dissected maps,” used not simply as toys, but to teach geography. Puzzles and education are a natural fit. Recently, in an effort to promote international understanding, Anne presented a paper at a meeting of the “Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists” in Eastbourne, England titled “The History of American Puzzles.” In addition to their use in teaching geography, puzzles were employed to teach the genealogy of the kings and queens of England. If you will permit me, this seems to fit nicely with one of the last items that Anne lists on her vita. Anne is a member of the Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain. Perhaps some of those early educational puzzles are missing a few important pieces after all. In any case, economics, education, demography, development, history, and puzzles all fit together to form a wonderful picture we know as Anne Williams. Better yet, this is a picture still in progress. We look forward to finding our connections to the new pieces that The Invisible Hand has yet to put in their proper place.


Comments are closed.