The Accounting Hall of Fame
William Threipland Baxter
This scholar and teacher of international renown wove together accounting, economics and business history in a long and influential career. He was born in Grimsby, England in 1906, where fishing dominated the local economy and engaged both his father and paternal grandfather. When he was but three years of age, his father died. After a few years, his mother moved to Edinburgh to be nearer her family and friends and to give her only child access to a better education. He attended George Watson's College which was noted for thorough instruction in English, Latin, and French grammar and a strict discipline maintained with the aid of a leather strap or "tawse."
Upon entering the University of Edinburgh, he earned the Bachelor of Commerce degree and the Chartered Accountant's credential simultaneously in five years and took particular pleasure in the university's debating societies. The CA preparation included an apprenticeship in the offices of the Scott-Moncrieff, Thomson and Shiells accounting firm in Edinburgh as well as a series of correspondence or "postal" courses and evening classes offered by the Edinburgh Society of Accountants. He passed his final examination for the B.Com in 1929 and joined the office of Graham, Smart and Annan in Edinburgh, Annan being the University professor of accounting. In the following year, he qualified as a Chartered Accountant and became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.
With Annan's encouragement, he applied for and won a Harkness Fellowship for two years of study in the United States beginning in the autumn of 1931. His studies began at the University of Pennsylvania, but an introduction to Norman Gras, Professor of Business History at Harvard, took him to Boston for a two-week visit that resulted in his transfer to Boston for the remainder of his stay to work on the papers and business records of John Hancock's family.
Finding accounting positions scarce when he returned to London in 1933, he continued his work on the Hancock project and attended classes at the London School of Economics. Here he sharpened his understanding of economics by attending lectures and seminars offered by Friedrich von Hayek, Lionel C. Robbins, and Sir Arnold Plant. In the autumn of the following year, he returned to Edinburgh to take a part-time lecturer position at the University of Edinburgh. During vacation periods, he returned to LSE for additional study. In 1937, he accepted a chair in accounting at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he remained for ten years working with stimulating colleagues that included W. H. Hutt and George Thirlby. Here he completed work on his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral thesis was titled The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-75, and it was published by Harvard University Press in 1945.
In 1947, he returned to a professorship at LSE where his accounting colleagues included David Solomons, Harold Edey and Jack Kitchen. Here he met and worked with many distinguished visiting professors including Philip Bell, James Bonbright, and Sidney Davidson. In 1958, at Bonbright's invitation, he returned to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Columbia University. In the years that followed, he came to the U.S. for visiting professorships at Baruch College, CUNY (1978-79 and 1982-83) and traveled for shorter periods to the universities in Lagos, Jamaica, Singapore, Australia, and Japan.
His exceptional record of published work includes some ten books and monographs and over 75 articles in academic and professional journals. His book titled Depreciation was published in 1971, Accounting Values and Inflation in 1975, and the influential collection of papers titled Studies in Accounting Theory, edited with Sidney Davidson of the University of Chicago, was published in 1962. His published papers cover topics ranging from accounting history to depreciation accounting, asset valuation and professional issues. He skillfully addressed both academic and professional audiences and did not shrink from controversy. For example, one provocative paper published in 1981 questioned the substitution of cut-and-dried accounting standards for thoughtful professional judgment. He was also a member of the first editorial board of the Journal of Accounting Research which initially was published jointly by LSE and the University of Chicago beginning in 1963.
A much respected teacher, he wrought numerous innovations in the accounting curriculum at LSE and influenced countless graduates of the school. Colleagues and former students honored him on the occasion of his retirement from LSE in 1973 with the publication of a collection of papers titled Debits, Credits, Finance and Profits, edited by Harold Edey and Basil Yamey. A further festschrift was presented to him in 1996 on the occasion of his 90 th birthday, titled Essays in Accounting Thought: A Tribute to W. T. Baxter, edited by Irvine Lapsley. Following his retirement, he has continued to write and publish, including a body of work on inflation accounting stemming from extended studies in South America. Indeed, just last year, he published a paper in the Accounting Historians Journal.
His many honors and awards include four honorary doctorates and designation as an Honorary Fellow of both the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh . He and his wife reside in London. He is the seventy-seventh member of the Accounting Hall of Fame, William Threipland Baxter.