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I don’t take sides. I just gather facts and if people don’t like my work they just don’t like the facts.

–Edith Penrose


Economist Edith Penrose helped bridged the gap between economics and business strategy. While Penrose is not as well-known as she should be, nonetheless her 1959 work The Theory of the Growth of the Firm was widely influential. American-born and living for much of her life in Britain, Penrose taught in Baghdad, London, Australia, Cairo, Beirut, Tanzania and many more places.

On November 15, 1914, Edith Elura Tilton was born in Los Angeles to George Albert Tilton Jr., a construction engineer, and his wife, Hazel. Edith received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley where she excelled in both academics and debate society. In her senior year, she studied under economic professor Ernest Francis Penrose. Edith would marry him in 1944.

Penrose suffered her fair share of tragedy. While hunting in 1938, her husband of just a few years, David Burton Denhardt, was mysteriously shot. No one was ever charged, but Edith was convinced he had been murdered. In February of the next year, she gave birth to their first child. She lost two brothers: one in World War II and another to a crash during a routine airplane exercise. In 1948, she suffered another terrible loss: her toddler son, Trevan, succumbed to an infection and suddenly died.

After graduating from Berkley, Edith continued to work for Professor Penrose and accepted a job under him with the International Labor Office in Geneva.

The Penrose book Theory of the Growth of the Firm has been called “the most influential book of the second half of the twentieth century; bridging economics and management literatures.” It laid the foundation for the field of management studies and contemporary business strategy. Penrose’s work provided much influence for the “resource-based view” of business strategy.

Penrose received both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University where she worked closely with the Austrian-American economist Fritz Machlup. Unfortunately, her relationship with the institution ended sourly. She was never tenured despite her great work, and she became particularly disillusioned after Owen Lattimore, a fellow professor, was falsely accused of having anti-American tendencies.

In 1962, Penrose was appointed as acting head of the brand-new department of economic and political studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. There she and her colleagues emphasized teaching and understanding developing economies. Penrose helped establish the Journal of Development Studies, the only of its kind, which is still a prestigious publication.

In January 1977, Penrose accepted one of her most significant posts: a position with the Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires or European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD) in France. At that time the institute was not particularly well-known as a business school, but Penrose helped turn it into a formidable player. Many of the other professors were younger and had recently received their Ph.D.s, while she had had years of teaching and research experience. Penrose became a mentor and somewhat of a surrogate mother to many students and other professors. She was famous throughout her life for being compassionate but forthright. She was especially diligent about championing for women at INSEAD and in the field more broadly.

After retiring from INSEAD in 1984, she moved to a small village near Cambridge but continued her research on the oil industry. She rarely took a break from lecturing, traveling and consulting well into her retirement and died suddenly but peacefully in her sleep on October 11, 1996.


Sarah Stanley is the former managing editor of Religion & Liberty.