William Zebina Ripley (October 13, 1867 – August 16, 1941) was an American economist and anthropologist. Ripley’s work in economics, especially his criticism of the railroad system, helped reconstruct and modernize the American railroad system in the 1920s and 1930s. He became famous for his tripartite racial theory of Europe, namely that all the peoples of Europe could be categorized into three groups: the northern (Teutonic), southern (Mediterranean), and central (Alpine) populations. Although not accepted by most academics of his time, his writings were popular with the public, and later led to formulations of the northern, renamed "Nordic," "master race" concept taken up by Adolf Hitler with disastrous consequences for the world.
William Zebina Ripley was born on October 13, 1867, in Medford, Massachusetts, into the family of Nathaniel L. Ripley and Estimate R.E. Baldwin. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his undergraduate education in engineering, graduated in 1890, and received a master's and a doctorate degree from Columbia University in 1892 and 1893 respectively.
In 1893, he married Ida S. Davis. From 1893 until 1901, Ripley lectured on sociology at Columbia University and from 1895 until 1901 he was a professor of economics at MIT. From 1901 to the end of his career he was a professor of political economics at Harvard University.
In 1908, Ripley was the first American recipient of the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, on account of his contributions to anthropology.
Although the first part of his career was mostly spent studying anthropology and sociology, the second part of it was completely dedicated to economics. Ripley had worked under Theodore Roosevelt on the United States Industrial Commission in 1900, helping negotiate relations between railroad companies and anthracite coal companies. In 1916, he served on the Eight Hour Commission, adjusting wages to the new eight-hour workday. From 1917 to 1918 he served as Administrator of Labor Standards for the United States Department of War, and helped to settle strikes.
Ripley served as the vice president of the American Economics Association in 1898, 1900, and 1901, and was elected president of the association in 1933. From 1919 to 1920, he served as the chairman of the National Adjustment Commission of the United States Shipping Board, and from 1920 to 1923, he served with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). In 1921, he was ICC special examiner on the construction of railroads. There, he wrote the ICC's plan for the regional consolidation of U.S. railroads, which became known as the "Ripley Plan." In 1929, the ICC published Ripley's Plan under the title “Complete Plan of Consolidation.” Numerous hearings were held by the ICC regarding the plan under the topic of "In the Matter of Consolidation of the Railways of the United States into a Limited Number of Systems."
In 1920, Ripley began to criticize large corporations for their methods of doing business, and advocated for the corporations to make their records of income public. However, after an automobile accident in January of 1927, Ripley suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to recuperate at a sanitarium in Connecticut. Ripley was unable to return to teaching until 1929. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, he was occasionally credited with having predicted the financial disaster. One article published in 1929 implied that his automobile accident may have been part of a conspiracy.
In the early 1930s, he continued to issue criticisms of the railroad industry labor practices. In 1931, he testified at a Senate banking inquiry, urging the curbing of investment trusts. In 1932, he appeared at the Senate Banking and Currency Committee and demanded public inquiry into the financial affairs of corporations and authored a series of articles in the New York Times stressing the importance of railroad economics to the country's economy. Yet, by the end of the year he had suffered another nervous breakdown, and retired in early 1933.
Ripley died in 1941 at his summer home in Edgecomb, Maine.
In 1899, Ripley authored a book entitled The Races of Europe, which had grown out of a series of lectures he had given at the Lowell Institute at Columbia in 1896. Ripley believed that race was the central engine to understanding human history. However, his work also afforded strong weight to environmental and non-biological factors, such as traditions. He believed, as he wrote in the introduction, that:
Race, properly speaking, is responsible only for those peculiarities, mental or bodily, which are transmitted with constancy along the lines of direct physical descent from father to son. Many mental traits, aptitudes, or proclivities, on the other hand, which reappear persistently in successive populations, may be derived from an entirely different source. They may have descended collaterally, along the lines of purely mental suggestion by virtue of mere social contact with preceding generations (Ripley, 1899).
Ripley's book, originally written to help finance his children’s educations, became a very-well respected work of early twentieth century anthropology, renowned for its careful writing, compilation, and criticism of the data of many other anthropologists in Europe and the United States.
Ripley based his conclusions about race by correlating anthropometric data with geographical data, paying special attention to the use of the cephalic index, which at the time was considered a well-established measure. However, later research determined that the cephalic index was largely an effect of the environment. From this and other socio-geographical factors, Ripley classified Europeans into three distinct races:
Ripley's tripartite system of race put him at odds both with other scholars who insisted that there was only one European race, and those who insisted that there were dozens of European races (such as Joseph Deniker, whom Ripley saw as his chief rival).
Though he is today most often remembered for his work on race, in his time, Ripley was just as famous, if not more so, for his critiques of the business strategies of large corporations in the 1920s and his views on railroad economics.
Starting with a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly in 1925 under the headlines of "Stop, Look, Listen!," Ripley became a major critic of American corporate practices. In 1926, he issued a well circulated critique of Wall Street's practices of speculation and secrecy. Often corporations would conceal their affairs from the ordinary stockholders. Ripley received a full-page profile in the New York Times magazine with the headline, "When Ripley Speaks, Wall Street Heeds.” He advocated for corporations to make reports of their income public and to regularly report on the state of their inventories. Since corporations were reluctant to do this, Ripley asked the Federal Trade Commission to demand such reports.
After the economic crash in 1929, Ripley was often credited for predicting the crash. He later advocated for more federal government control in the economy.
Ripley was a strong critic of a railroad economics of United States. He believed that railroads were of a particular importance for the economy of a country, and he advocated for greater discipline within the railroad industry. He proposed the complete reorganization of the railroad system. For example, in the “Ripley Plan,” he suggested that administrative functions of the Interstate Commerce Commission, including locomotive inspection, accident investigation, and safety equipment orders, be transferred to the Department of Transportation.
The Races of Europe was an influential book of the Progressive Era in the field of racial taxonomy. Ripley's tripartite system was especially championed by Madison Grant, who changed Ripley's "Teutonic" type into Grant's own "Nordic” type (taking the name, but little else, from Deniker), which he postulated as a master race. It is in this light that Ripley's work on race is usually remembered today, although little of Grant's supremacist ideology is present in Ripley's original work. It was, however, Grant's work that Adolf Hitler used to develop his concept of the Aryan master race. He used this concept to justify his attempt to dominate the whole of Europe, eliminating those who were not of the Nordic group, specifically Jews.
Ripley’s work in economics, especially his criticism of the old railroad system, helped reconstruct and modernize the American railroad system.
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