Herman van der Wee (1928), Belgium

Herman van der Wee received the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History 1992 for his outstanding work in economic history. His interests extend from the Middle Ages to the present. 

Whether writing about the Low Countries, Europe or the world at large, he is capable of focusing on small but nonetheless significant details one moment, and then standing back and surveying global historical developments the next. His uncanny ability to analyse and synthesize complex sources using innovative methodologies has inspired countless other members of his profession.

In 1951 Van der Wee presented a thesis entitled Outline of a method for the history of prices and wages, and then turned his attention to the economic development of Antwerp and its European hinterland during the early modern period. Out of this research grew his monumental doctoral dissertation, which was published in 1963: The Growth of the Antwerp Market and the European Economy, fourteenth-sixteenth centuries. This pioneering study is distinguished by innovative approaches to historical inquiry, metrology, monetary history, statistics, and to the analysis of economic cycles and development. After completing his dissertation, Van der Wee continued his exploration of the institutional aspects of Western European monetary and financial history and quantitative social history. In the contest of an international project surrounding the history of banking in pre-industrial Europe, he studied the role of sixteenth-century Antwerp merchants in developing new financial techniques.

His interest in quantitative social history drew him into such matters as famine, employment, food, living standards and poverty. Van der Wee has not confined his research to the distant past. Not only has he published a study of the National Bank of Belgium, but also Prosperity and Upheaval: The World Economy. 1945-1980 (1983), which outlines global economic development since World War Two and also looks at current economic structures.

About the laureate

39.jpgHerman van der Wee was born in 1928 in Lier, Belgium. He enrolled as a law student at the Catholic University of Louvain in 1945, where he received the doctor's degree in 1950. His interest in the more speculative aspects of law led to a degree in philosophy in 1949. In 1951 and 1952 he earned further degrees in the political and social sciences as well as history. The academic year of 1951-1952 he spent in Paris at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, the following year at the London School of Economics.

Alongside his research, Van der Wee has had a brilliant academic career in Belgium and abroad. At the Catholic University of Louvain he progressed from the rank of lecturer (1955) to associate professor (1966), to professor (1967) and finally to full professor (1969). In the course of the decades that followed he has worked at numerous universities around the world as either a visiting professor or research fellow.

He is a member of many national and international organisations, including the Royal Academy of Science, Arts and Fine Arts of Belgium, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy. In 1986 he was elected president of the International Economic History Association. He founded the Workshop on Quantitative Economic History at the University of Louvain in 1968, which attracts graduate students and young scholars from all over the world, and promulgates new statistical, sociological and economic methodologies.

Van der Wee has been honoured by the Eugene Baie Foundation (1966) and the Royal Academy of Belgium (1968), besides receiving two Fulbright-Hayes fellowships (1975 and 1981). He is a compelling teacher, who inspires his students with his distinctive commitment to learning and scholarly innovation.