Margaret and Giulio Pontecorvo


Giulio Pontecorvo, a professor of economics who taught at Columbia University for four decades and served as an advisor to the U.S. and foreign governments, including the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Law of the Sea Institute, and the U.S. State Department, died Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at his home in Manhattan. He was 98.

Dr. Pontecorvo was born on July 24, 1923, to Giulio Pontecorvo Sr., an Italian immigrant, and Sarah Dorothy Scott, in Little Falls, N.J. Giulio Sr. was an engineer who worked for Westinghouse during the First World War, and his mother expressed her love of fine art by opening an antique shop in Montclair, N.J.

Margaret Pontecorvo passed away at the age of 99 on Friday, July 8, 2022, at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.

Margaret Mary Pontecorvo, née Thatcher, was born in Bend, Ore. on June 26th, 1923, to Evelyn and Ivan Thatcher, the third of five children: Earl, Eleanor, Margaret, Frank, and Jack. She attended high school in Bend, and went on to attend Oregon State College in Corvallis, where she joined the Chi Omega sorority.

At home during a summer break from college, Margaret and her friends attended USO events at Camp Abbot, the military training center where newly enlisted recruits were in basic training. It was there that she met Giulio, on a picnic at Suttle Lake in Bend. Giulio was the replacement for her intended date, Benjamin Franklin Jones, who had been forced to cancel at the last minute due to disciplinary action. The event led to the marriage of Giulio and Margaret in 1947.

Margaret returned to school and earned her master’s degree in library science, which led to a position as the librarian for Spring Valley Elementary School during a time when many roles were closed to women. Besides managing the library, Margaret loved story hour, where she read to the children and introduced them to new books and ideas. She continued to commute to New City after moving to New York City in the mid-’80s.

Margaret was a thoughtful, articulate, and caring friend who had the courage to think for herself and stand by her convictions. She was also a wicked bridge player. Although she put the needs of her family and husband first, her independent spirit supported a rich social life full of enduring friendships and meaningful pursuits.

Dr. Pontecorvo’s attendance at Dartmouth College was interrupted by his volunteer service in World War II, where he served as a combat engineer in the Trailblazer’s 70th Division, seeing action against the desperate German defense of Saarbrucken and the invasion of Germany, marking the end of the war. Returning to Dartmouth after the war, he completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics, and married the love of his life, Margaret Thatcher, whom he had met during basic training. He was awarded a Ph.D. in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956.

Dr. Pontecorvo served as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and was appointed full professor at Columbia in 1968. He was named professor emeritus in 1994.

It was at Bowdoin College where his interest started to focus on the economics of fishing, and this is where service as an advisor, teacher, and mentor began to emerge as the central theme of his life. In 1964 he was invited to the University of Buenos Aires as a guest lecturer to advise on Argentina’s fishing industry, followed by an evaluation of anchovy production in Peru, and a stint as Fulbright guest lecturer at the University of Bergen in Norway in 1967.  That led to appointments to many advisory positions for governmental agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Law of the Sea, International Marine Science Affairs Policy Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. State Department for Law of the Sea negotiations, and numerous others.

His contributions in the public sector complimented his work as a professor at Columbia’s Graduate Business School. It is here where he excelled as a teacher and mentor. Quoting his students: “Your quiet but unstinting support and encouragement were decisive in helping me see my way through the obstacle course of the doctoral program … In a world of conflicting and sometimes contradicting and unrealistic expectations, yours was the voice of continuity, reason, and encouraging demands … Thank you for having been who you were and having done what you did. You set a distinct and worthy example which deserves replication, but will be impossible to emulate.”

From a letter to Dr. Pontecorvo from Dr. Eli Ginzburg, also a professor at Columbia, who served as advisor to eight U.S. presidents and whose work led to desegregating the U.S. military, “You have been a major contributor to the efforts of trying to keep the faculty and [Columbia Business School] in an intellectual orbit that respected quality and made sense.”

Dr. Pontecorvo published countless academic books, articles, studies, and reports. Although none of them made the best-seller list, they were highly regarded in academic circles. And somehow, he found time to support his local community library — he was responsible for a new library building in New City, N.Y., and a fourfold increase in the library budget.

Giulio and Margaret first brought their family to Chilmark on the Vineyard for a month in the mid-1960s. It quickly became a family tradition, followed soon after by building a house in Aquinnah. Summers on the Vineyard have become a treasured family experience that is being passed down to younger generations.

Giulio and Margaret are survived by their four sons, Michael, Guy, Anthony, and Andrew, and their families. Giulio, beloved husband, father, teacher, and mentor, and Margaret, beloved wife, mother, librarian, gardener, and steadfast friend, will be missed. Margaret and Giulio will be buried together on Saturday, August 6, at Aquinnah Cemetery at 2 pm.

Charitable donations in Margaret and Giulio’s name can be sent in the form of a check to Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Donations, c/o Barbara Spain, 20 Black Brook Road, Aquinnah, MA 02535-1546.