Thomas K. McCraw brought economic theory and business practices to life in the classes he taught at Harvard University and through his books such as “Prophets of Regulation,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1985.
Born in Mississippi, he delivered classroom lectures in a Southern twang and strived to turn scholarly topics into books as readable as those of his favorite novelist, William Faulkner.
“Tom McCraw was a born leader who pursued, and achieved, excellence as a scholar and a teacher. No one ever worked harder to find the perfect word to express himself,” said his friend and fellow business historian Richard S. Tedlow, a professor emeritus at Harvard. “Yet both his publications and his teaching seemed effortless. Tom was a master of ‘the art that conceals art.’ ”
Dr. McCraw, who joined the Harvard Business School faculty in 1976 and lived in Belmont, died Nov. 3 in Mount Auburn Hospital after suffering for many years from a neurological condition that affected his heart and lungs. He was 72.
His latest book, “The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy,” was published in October and tells the stories of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, US Treasury secretaries.
“During the first 40 years after 1776, the new country could have broken apart because of its financial problems, which were related to sectional disputes and even more to foreign affairs,” Dr. McCraw wrote in the introduction. “It happened to be blessed, however, with a handful of people who understood finance and also grasped the economic potential of the American national future.”
Publisher’s Weekly said the book “should interest any lay historian, particularly when he presents the many ‘what if’s.’ ”
Though very ill, Dr. McCraw researched and wrote for years while lying in bed and typing on an old laptop propped on a tray, said his wife, Susan.
“He was just indefatigable,” she said.
Born Sept. 11, 1940, in Corinth, Miss., Dr. McCraw spent his childhood in a series of towns in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, while his father worked as an engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority.
After attending the University of Mississippi on an ROTC scholarship, and graduating in 1962, Dr. McCraw served four years in the Navy.
He had met Susan Morehead when they were freshmen seated together in a class at the university in the late 1950s. They married in 1962.
Dr. McCraw graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s and a doctorate in history, and went to teach at the University of Texas at Austin. His first two books published in the early 1970s were about the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The couple’s first child, a daughter named Carey, died in 1970 at 5 of a neurological disorder.
Each of Dr. McCraw’s books contain warm acknowledgements of his wife, who was a partner in a Boston law firm and is now a textiles artist.
“Her insights and editorial skills, honed during years of legal practice, affected its every page, and her fine artist’s eye the choice of every illustration,” Dr. McCraw wrote in his 2007 book, “Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction.”
Critics praised that biography for weaving together Schumpeter’s professional and personal lives. Schumpeter’s theories on the value of disruption and turmoil in the business cycle for creating entrepreneurs and growth were influential, and he also once vowed to become the greatest lover in Vienna.
In Dr. McCraw’s early years at Harvard, he was a protege of Alfred D. Chandler Jr., a professor and noted business historian who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1978 for “The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business.”
Dr. McCraw first went to Harvard on a business history fellowship in 1973. He returned as a visiting professor in 1976 and was granted tenure in 1978. He retired in 2006 and was the Isidor Straus professor of business history emeritus.
He loved playing golf, following the Boston Celtics, and visiting Bermuda, where he bought a vacation home.
Dr. McCraw personified the phrase “a scholar and a gentleman,” Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, said in a statement.
“Tom McCraw was an extraordinarily insightful and influential historian who won acclaim both on this campus and around the globe,” Nohria said. “His work will influence students and scholars for generations to come.”
Dr. McCraw helped created the first-year MBA course, “Creating Modern Capitalism,” and a popular second-year elective, “The Coming of Managerial Capitalism.” He was part of a group of business faculty leaders known for classroom innovation, according to the school.
“He was the best teacher I ever had. There are so many people I encountered who would say the same thing,” said Betsy MacIver Neiva, who was one of his doctoral students in the early 1990s and is now an administrator and teacher at a private school in Philadelphia.
“From Professor McCraw’s painstaking edits of every book review and chapter I turned in, I learned how to write,” she said. “To this day, each time I remove an unnecessary comma from a sentence, I think of him.”
Often suffering from back pain, Dr. McGraw used special chairs in his office and attended faculty meetings by lying on a portable chaise lounge he carried with him, friends said. He had endured poor health since his late 40s, according to his wife.
“He coped with such adversity when I was working with him,” MacIver Neiva recalled. “He was very private about it. He never gave any indication that anything in his life came close to the importance of what I was telling him about.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. McCraw leaves a daughter, Elizabeth McCarron of Wellesley; a son, Thomas Jr. of Bedford, N.H.; a brother, John of Gainesville, Fla.; and three granddaughters.
A service has been held. Burial was in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Geoffrey G. Jones, a Harvard business professor who chairs the school’s Business History Initiative, said Dr. McCraw was “a true leader and institution builder.”
“A prolific and lucid author, he repeatedly made the case that history matters to the concerns of today,” Jones said. “He was a master of using biography to deepen understanding of highly complex issues, but he was also a remarkable synthesizer, a skill he employed to pioneer the teaching of global business history.”