Harold Kuhn, Game Theory Pioneer, Dies at 88


Harold Kuhn, a Princeton University mathematician who advanced game theory approaches to economics, died of congestive heart failure on July 2. He was 88 years old.

Born in 1925, Kuhn served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946 and completed his bachelor’s degree at the California Institute of Technology in 1947. After completing his Ph.D. at Princeton he was a Fulbright Scholar in Paris. He worked as an instructor at Princeton University and spent seven years on the faculty of Bryn Mawr College before returning to  in 1959 to Princeton, where he would spend the rest of his career. He taught at Princeton University for 37 years and retired in 1995.

Kuhn was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1982-83 and served as president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. He was a consultant to government organizations and to several companies, and was a senior consultant and member of the board at research firm Mathematica Inc. from 1961 to 1983. At Mathematica he directed projects for the Atomic Energy Commission, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Department of Transportation.

He was an active supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union for many years.

While Kuhn was working on his dissertation, he began exploring the emerging field of game theory, which focuses on the behavior of decision makers whose choices affect each other. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was involved in organizing many conferences in game theory. John Nash was a classmate, and in 1994 Kuhn was invited by the Nobel Prize committee to chair a panel discussion of Nash’s work on the occasion of Nash’s award of the Nobel Prize in economics.

“Game theory blossomed in Princeton in the mid-20th century. Kuhn was a key member of a brilliant group that ushered it in, which included the genius John von Neumann and Nobel Prize winners John Nash, Lloyd Shapley and Robert Aumann, amongst other greats,” said Dilip Abreu, a professor of finance and economics at Princeton. “Kuhn’s now-standard formulation of extensive form games completely eclipsed von Neumann’s own, and his results on imperfect recall, mixed and behavioral strategies continue to stimulate, intrigue and delight.”

Kuhn taught undergraduate and graduate courses in both the economics and mathematics departments on topics including price theory, mathematical economics, trade theory and mathematical programming.

Princeton University President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro took several of Kuhn’s courses when he was a graduate student and said Kuhn excelled at explaining difficult material.

“He was extremely well organized and thoughtful,” Shapiro said. “He understood the challenge that faced the students in the problems he tried to elucidate.”

Kuhn had a significant impact on students outside the classroom as well. In the late 1960s he wrote a policy document known as “Students and the University” that led to broad changes in the participation of students in the governance of Princeton. Its successor document, “Rights, Rules and Responsibilities,” still plays a key role in defining students’ relationship with the school today. He also served on a committee that designed a council that continues today to give the school’s constituencies a voice in the institution’s governance.

In 2009, Kuhn returned to campus to speak about the early days of game theory to undergraduates taking the course “Theory of Games.” Kuhn and Nash spoke about the evolution and application of their work. As the session came to an end, a student asked what course Kuhn would take if he were an undergraduate again. He urged the students to explore a range of mathematical fields.

Kuhn is survived by his wife, Estelle (nee Henkin), of New York City; son Clifford (Katherine Klein) of Atlanta, and their children Joshua and Gabriel Klein-Kuhn; son Nicholas (Beth) of Charlottesville, Virginia, and their children Michael (Anushree Sengupta), Jeremy, and Emily; son Jonathan (Michele Herman) of New York City and their children Lee and Jeffrey.

No public service is planned. Memorial donations may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union.