Thomas Main Doerflinger (1952-2015)
Fred Anderson, October 2016
Historian of Business, Wall Street Strategist
That Thomas Doerflinger had prodigious gifts as a historian was unmistakable long before 1987, when his first book, A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia, won both the Bancroft Prize and the Herbert Feis Award. That the passage of decades did not diminish them was evident when his “Capital Generation in the New Nation: How Stephen Girard Made His First $735,872” appeared in the fall 2015 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. It was the work of a historian at the top of his game—and, tragically, a posthumous publication. The stroke that felled Tom on August 23, 2015, inflicted not only an irreparable loss on his wife, Janet, and their daughter, Jane, but on the history of early American business enterprise, for it cut short Tom’s return to the research and publication program he had put on hold in 1983, when he went to work as an equities analyst on Wall Street.
Tom’s formidable intelligence and work ethic awed many of us who were his contemporaries in graduate school at Harvard in the second half of the 1970s. Perhaps most daunting was his early success in publication: we were stunned, in November 1976, to see his essay “The Antilles Trade of the Old Regime: A Statistical Overview” in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. That a third-year student should break into print in a leading journal seemed somehow unfair. Luckily we didn’t realize that New Jersey History had published Tom’s first scholarly article not long after he graduated from high school. We knew nothing of “Hibernia Furnace during the Revolution” because Tom hadn’t thought it worth mentioning, any more than that he had won Princeton’s prize for best senior thesis in American history in 1974, along with the Laurence Hutton Prize, given to recognize the history major with the strongest overall record.
But then there was a lot that Tom never disclosed about his background. I had known him five years before he mentioned in passing that his father, William Main Doerflinger (1910–2000), had written the definitive study of sea chanties; he never did get around to revealing that his mother, Anne Homer (1908–95), had published more than a hundred short stories in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, as well as a biography of the remarkable woman who was the Met’s principal contralto from 1900 through 1918, Louise Homer and the Golden Age of Opera (1974). Tom’s grad school friends thought him remarkable for many things, including unapologetically conservative political views, a dry and mischievous wit, and an uncommon fondness for turtles and snakes—but never as a man whose grandmother had sung opposite Caruso.
Tom’s reticence proceeded partly from modesty, but more from a desire to be known by his work. When an excerpt of his dissertation won the 1980 Bowdoin Prize for the Best Graduate Essay in English, he was pleased less by the fact that his name had joined a list of awardees that included Henry Adams and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. than that the competition had been both fierce and anonymous (Bowdoin entrants submit their work under pseudonyms). When in that same year he received the Institute of Early American History and Culture’s postdoctoral fellowship, what mattered most was that he would have the time to turn his dissertation into the best book possible. That the institute fellowship virtually assured its holder an assistant professorship was less consequential because finishing the book outweighed his desire for an academic career.
Tom disliked teaching, and his doubts about academe increased during the fellowship term and his additional year as the institute’s acting editor of publications. Reasoning that he could adapt the skills he had developed in studying 18th-century business enterprise to modern financial analysis, he decided to try his hand on Wall Street. An uncle, Sidney Homer Jr. (1902–83), had made his classics and philosophy BA (Harvard ’23) the starting point of a legendary career in the analysis of bond rates and eventually headed the research division of Salomon Brothers; why should Tom not follow suit? If he earned real money (“Six million,” he mused, when pressed for a number, “ought to be enough”), he could retire, buy a house near Princeton, and write history.
Thus, in 1983, Tom joined Paine Webber as an equity strategist with unusually strong writing skills and an atypically deep time horizon. He reinforced his emerging reputation by publishing, with Jack Rivkin, Risk and Reward: Venture Capital and the Making of America’s Great Industries in 1987—an extraordinarily readable narrative of the investment strategies that fostered the growth of the railroad, steel, telecommunications, automobile, computer, and biotechnology industries. Tom’s analytical and quantitative skills, virtuoso forecasts of corporate profits, and knack for finding analogies to explain the market earned him a devoted following among institutional investors, and eventually the position of senior strategist and managing director at UBS Securities, from which he retired in 2012.
Tom had never stopped writing history during his Wall Street years—he published a superb article on the staffing and management of New Jersey ironworks in the January 2002 William and Mary Quarterly, and from time to time he wrote reviews—but with retirement he once again made scholarship the focus of his abundant energies. He also launched a blog, “Wall Street and K Street,” where his commentary on “structural trends in the economy, financial markets, and politics” was wide-ranging, pungent, and unsparing of those (including the present writer) with whom he disagreed—and also generous, public-spirited, and full of wit. Tom was evidently moving not just toward a revival of historical research and writing, but toward yet another career, as a conservative public intellectual. The loss of his incisive intelligence and distinctive voice are thus all the more regrettable to the many who could have profited from his views on contemporary issues no less than from his insights into the past—had he only been granted the time to make them known.
University of Colorado
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