Professor Tony Thirlwall (1941 – 2023) 

Colleagues share the achievements and their fond memories of an irreplaceable colleague and friend. 

The life and academic journey of Tony Thirlwall were marked by a profound dedication and love of economic science, leaving an enduring legacy on ideas, concepts and people that extends far beyond the campus of the University of Kent. Tony was instrumental in shaping the ideas of economists both in his intellectual tradition but also, because he was so generous with his time, even those with whom he disagreed.  He was a child, literally of the war, but also of the progressive society and hope in the better future that would follow. 

Born April 21st, 1941, he was educated at Harrow Weald County Grammar School, where he had been taught by future Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees. Tony went up to Leeds as an undergraduate in 1959 and on to a Master’s programme at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1962; and then Cambridge in 1963 to begin a PhD, before moving back to Leeds, drawn by his early mentor, Arthur Brown, to his first academic appointment in 1964. He completed his doctoral research in 1967, investigating the nature and causes of regional disparities in the UK with a particular focus on unemployment and regional employment policy.  

In 1966, he made the landmark move to the newly established University of Kent at Canterbury.  This marked the beginning of an academic journey that saw him rise swiftly from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer, Reader, and ultimately, Professor of Applied Economics by the age of 35 – one of the first to be given that title. And he stayed at Kent, in Keynes College, for the rest of his career with the exception of visiting spells at academic and policy institutions around the world. He was always at the end of an email discussing something interesting and important, even when he could not attend seminars.  He would often take to task those who used Keynesian terminology for the models that did not allow for unemployment or deficient demand.

He enjoyed academic life in Keynes College, it became very much his working home.  At one point in the early 1990s, the University created Departments and there was discussion of moving the economists from Keynes to join the other economists in Eliot College. Tony said with his usual wit that it would be a shame for Eliot College to have to be renamed Keynes College. The move to Eliot never happened, the Eliot economists moved to Keynes. Tony was often to be found in the Keynes staff common room of a morning enjoying a coffee and putting the economic world to rights with colleagues. There was a very collegiate atmosphere in the Keynes staff room, and many colleagues would come there for coffee because of it. Tony was integral in fostering this daily get-together and a very welcoming presence in the College for new or visiting staff. 

As a teacher and supervisor, Tony’s approach was characterized by a clear and organised delivery, high expectations of students, the ability to encourage students to engage deeply with the subject matter, and to write lucidly.  All who had been taught by him were inspired both by the subject matter and by the discipline that economics imposed on the thought process. His breadth of reading and knowledge, and his ability to remember data, was legendary among his students, colleagues and collaborators. All this scholarship was clear to see in the influential textbook “Growth and Development: with Special Reference to Developing Economies” first published in 1972 and now in its tenth edition.  The later volumes were authored jointly with his wife and collaborator, Penny Pacheco López. Tony had a great deal of enthusiasm for supervising students, both undergraduate and graduate, sharing stimulating ideas, and challenging established wisdom.  There was always a steady stream of graduate students from around the world, often first attracted to Kent on the basis of his reputation, many of whom he co-authored papers and maintained enduring relationships.   

Tony’s scholarly output was prolific, encompassing, at last count, some 15 books, 12 edited volumes, and nearly 200 chapters and articles in journals. It encompasses fields such as regional divergence, balance of payments and growth, financial liberalisation, development and trade, all drawn together by a consistent Keynesian view of the macroeconomy.  

Few economists can claim to have a “law” to their name.

His celebrated “Balance of Payments Constrained Growth” model published in 1979, also known as “Thirlwall’s Law” stated that economic growth was constrained by the current account of the Balance of Payments and long-run growth was a function of the income elasticity of exports over imports. This “law” not only had a widespread academic impact, but was also very influential in policy institutions such as ECLAC, UNCTAD, and ADB. The idea stemmed from his previous work on Kaldorian cumulative causation models of regional growth differences.  Later, he was the biographer and literary executor of Kaldor, who was, together with Keynes, his main intellectual influences. It would take a very long article to do justice to all his published work and research interests. 

The ability to bring together scholars from all over the world to discuss ideas stemming from the work of Keynes and later writers in the series of Keynes seminars held at Keynes College in the University of Kent reflects his international standing. A Festschrift published in 2006 is further confirmation of his reach. Tony was an inveterate correspondent with other scholars, first by letter, later by email, and often leading to published debates.  

Outside of academia, Tony was a very good schoolboy runner and when a student at Cambridge, ran for Cambridge in the annual Oxford-Cambridge cross country race. When he turned forty, he took up Veterans athletics and in the national championships in Barnsley in 1982 he came second in the 800 metres and third in the 400 metres. He then represented Great Britain in the European Veterans Championships in Strasbourg in the same year.  He could also be seen on a university football pitch from time to time in the annual staff – student match.  Later, he took up tennis and played regularly at Polo Farm Tennis Club until his illness forced him to retire. 

He died on 8th November 2023, and leaves two children, Alexandra and Lawrence, from his first marriage to Gianna Paoletti from Trieste; and a son, Oliver, from his second marriage to Penélope Pacheco-López in 2011. Four grandchildren, Ben, Sam, Sienna and Lorenzo also survive him. 

Colleagues at the School are very sad to lose such an irreplaceable colleague and friend, and have great memories of his time among us. 

Alan Carruth, Jagjit Chadha, Amanda Gosling, Miguel Leon-Ledesma and Roger Vickerman.