Robert Dorfman

October 27, 1916 – June 24, 2002

Brief Biography

Robert Dorfman

Robert Dorfman was a political economist and twelfth president of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS). Born in New York, he received his first two degrees from Columbia University. Having lost a childhood wish to become a poet, Dorfman turned to mathematics and economics. Like most young men his age, Dorfman suspended his education to aid the United States’ effort in World War II. Starting in 1939, he began work as a statistician for the Federal Government.

As the US became more involved in the war, Dorfman moved to the Air Division of the U.S. Army and served as one of the unit’s pioneering operations analysts. In the Notes section of a 1943 issue of the Annals of Mathematical Statistics, Dorfman proposed and analyzed the use of pooled (or grouped) samples (now known as Dorfman screening) to detect the presence of infection in members of a large group of individuals.  He illustrated the approach using the program by the US Public Health Service and Selective Service System to detect syphilis in men called up for induction into the armed services.

Dorfman resumed his studies at the end of the war, enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1950, received a PhD in economics and accepted a teaching position at his alma mater. Dorfman left Berkeley in 1955 to teach at Harvard University, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he would stay for the remainder of his professional career. Dorfman’s greatest contributions during these early years involved his work in linear algebra. With MIT Professors and future Nobel Laureates Paul A. Samuelson and Robert Solow, Dorfman published Linear Programming and Economic Analysis (1958). It was the first book to emphasize the economic basis of linear programming. It also introduced the economic profession to the potential for applying linear algebra in business and industry.

Dorfman’s other primary interest involved environmental systems and resources. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dorfman authored numerous articles on the design and efficiency of water allocation systems. His work in the area became primarily focused on the Middle East and Pakistan and led to an understanding of effective conversation and distribution of scarce resources. Starting in 1972, he and his wife Nancy began editing a series of selected readings entitled Economics of the Environment. The piece was divided into five sections that each focused on a particular portion of economics and how it could be applied to environmental problems.

In addition to his service as TIMS president in 1965, Dorfman was a fellow and officer of many other professional institutions. He served as vice president of the American Economic Association and the Association of Environmental and Resource Economics. Dorfman was elected in the inaugural Fellows class of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 1976 to 1984, he served as the editor of theQuarterly Journal of Economics.

Dorfman retired from Harvard as the Davis A. Wells Professor of Political Economy in 1987. Though in college he had turned away from poetry as a profession, Dorfman’s love of literature is fondly reflected in the memories of his students and colleagues.

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Robert Dorfman

Harvard Gazette. Campus & Community: Robert Dorfman, Memorial Minute - Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Published November 14, 2012. Accessed February 23, 2015. (link)

INFORMS. Miser-Harris Presidential Gallery: Robert Dorfman. Accessed February 23, 2015. (link)


Columbia University, BA 1936

Columbia University, MA 1937

University of California, Berkeley PhD 1950


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas


Harvard University Gazette (2002) Economist Dorfman dies at 85. (July 18). (link)

New York Times (2002) Robert Dorfman, 85, Harvard Economist. (July 1). (link)

Awards and Honors

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow 1972

American Economic Association Distinguished Fellow 1992

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences Fellow 2002

Professional Service

American Economic Association, Vice President 1982

The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), President 1965

Selected Publications

Dorfman R. (1943) The detection of defective members of large populations. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 14(4): 436-440.

Dorfman R. (1951) Applications of Linear Programming to the Theory of the Firm. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA. 

Dorfman R. (1953) Mathematical, or "Linear", Programming: A Nonmathematical Exposition. The American Economics Review, 43(5): 797-825.

Dorfman R., Sameulson P. A., & Solow R. M. (1958) Linear Programming and Economic Analysis. McGraw-Hill: New York. 

Dorfman R. (1965) Formal models in the design of water resource systems. Water Resources Research, 1(3): 329-336.

Dorfman R. (1969) An economic interpretation of optimal control theory. The American Economic Review, 59(5): 817-831.

Dorfman N. S. & Dorfman R. (1972) Economics of the Environment: Selected Readings. WW Norton & Company: New York.

Dorfman R. (1973) Modeling Through. Interfaces, 3(4): 1-8. 

Dorfman R. (1996) Why Benefit-Cost Analysis is Widely Disregarded and What to Do About it. Interfaces, 26(5): 1-6.