Jonny Bunning, 2018-19 HOPE Center Fellow


A PhD student at Yale University in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, Jonny Bunning is spending a fellowship year at the HOPE Center researching the history of human capital theory—the theory that education, skills, health, and other embodied properties constitute a new kind of asset.

From the start, Jonny wanted archives to help direct the research. “Because I’m researching the biography of a concept rather than a person or event, I have to follow it across sources,” Jonny explains. “The Economists’ Papers Archive here at Duke is invaluable for doing this. An unrivalled, truly world-class resource.”

His investigations have led him to the papers of Robert Solow, Oskar Morgenstern, and Charles Roos, among others.

Human capital theory, Jonny points out, was not a concept that just happened to be in the air. “There were real people who promoted it. What I’m interested in is how the theory emerged and was interpreted to suit various purposes.”

While at Duke, Jonny is also looking into collections on other topics. The papers of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen connect to his secondary research on the history of environmental economics, and the papers of Alvin Roth, a key figure in the construction of markets for all sorts of items, including kidneys, are germane to Jonny’s background and interest in the history of medicine.

Jonny found his way to Duke and the Center by reading History of Political Economy, whose coverage of more contemporary economics has enriched his investigations into human capital theory. “I found the work in HOPE on postwar figures especially important,” he says. “After all, it was only after World War II that economics started to attain the power and status it has today.”

That the Center and HOPE are both located at Duke, Jonny is quick to aver, is one of the university’s major assets.    

Not only is this Jonny’s first time at Duke; it’s his first time south of Washington, D.C., despite having lived in the United States since starting his PhD program. In preparing for his fellowship year, Jonny read up on the history of Durham and the area. “History is local at all points, and Durham is no exception. The railroad, tobacco, Hayti and Parrish Street, NC Mutual—reading about these brought the local area and the United States to life.”

Jonny has made a point of connecting with the larger group of scholars here at Duke. “There’s a wealth of great work being done across disciplines here, a true universe of learning. Ideas don’t emerge in a vacuum; neither does good scholarship.”