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Russian-born U.S. economist oldest-ever Nobel winner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Economist Leonid Hurwicz thought he was too old to win the Nobel Prize at age 90 -- until his telephone began ringing on Monday morning.

Leonid Hurwicz speaks on the phone in his apartment after he received news that he had won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in Minneapolis October 15, 2007. REUTERS/Eric Miller

“I thought that my time perhaps had passed already,” the retired Russian-born U.S. economist said in a telephone interview from his home in Minneapolis. “It’s a pleasant surprise and the money for a retired person would help.”

Hurwicz, the oldest recipient of a Nobel prize, won the 2007 award along with two other Americans for laying the foundations of an economic theory that determines when markets are working effectively.

However, the professor emeritus of economics at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis said he had never received a degree in the field.

“Whatever economics I learned I learned by listening and learning,” he said.

Hurwicz said he has several honorary degrees, but the only degree he had when he came to the United States in 1940 was a law degree from the University of Warsaw.

Born in Russia in 1917, the year of the communist revolution, Hurwicz fled to Poland with his family during World War One.

“I left Russia before I could walk and spent my young years in high school and university in Poland,” he said.

Hurwicz was in Switzerland as World War Two broke out and did not return home, but made his way to the United States, where he worked as an assistant to economist Paul Samuelson, who himself won an economics Nobel in 1970.

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“If I had been still in Warsaw in Poland, I probably would have been one of the victims of Auschwitz,” said the economist, who is Jewish.


Hurwicz became a visiting professor at several U.S. universities, including Harvard and Stanford, before settling at Minnesota in 1951. He said he continues to work on papers and economic research.

“I am officially retired but I am still working ... the only thing is that I don’t get paid,” he said with a laugh.

Hurwicz, who initiated the mechanism design theory, shared the award with Eric Maskin of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago.

He said the significance of their work is difficult for lay people, and even non-mathematical economists, to grasp.

“What is important about it is that it cuts across different approaches and unifies such different parts of economics and some very abstract theories on one hand and about the history of economic institutions and policies,” he said.

The economists will share a prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.57 million).

As for what he planned to do with the money, Hurwicz paused.

“This I haven’t decided yet. I want to make sure I’m really getting it.”