Zimmermann, Erich Walter (1888–1961)

By: Douglas E. Barnett

Type: Biography

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: May 7, 2016

Erich Walter Zimmermann, resource economist, son of Wilhelm and Eugenie (Grüneberg) Zimmermann, was born in Mainz, Germany, on July 31, 1888. After graduating from a Düsseldorf Gymnasium in 1907 he studied at the universities of Bonn, Berlin, Munich, and Birmingham (England), receiving a Ph.D. from Bonn in 1911 for his dissertation on the British coal export industry. He moved to the United States later that year to study the transportation functions of the Great Lakes and began a career in teaching and research. Zimmermann held several teaching positions, including one as a violin tutor, before taking an appointment in 1914 as instructor of economics and sociology at New York University. He married Margaret Hoff on June 23, 1917, and they had three children. In 1918 Zimmermann accepted a position in economics at James Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, where he offered a course entitled "Resources and Industries." He joined the economics faculty at the University of North Carolina in 1921 and advanced to the rank of professor in 1924. He became a United States citizen in 1925. By 1928 Zimmermann had written more than a dozen books and articles on foreign trade, shipping, and natural resources. He became most renowned, however, for his "functional" approach to resource study, first published in 1933 as World Resources and Industries: A Functional Appraisal of the Availability of Agricultural and Industrial Resources. Unlike traditional descriptive inventories, Zimmermann's method offered a synthetic assessment of the human, cultural, and natural factors that determine resource availability. Resources were seen as a function of human wants and abilities; according to Zimmermann, "resources are not, they become." Hailed as a "pioneer work," it led in 1934 to a Kenan professorship at North Carolina.

In 1942 Zimmermann accepted a position as distinguished professor of resources at the University of Texas, where he continued his work. Two chapters contributed to Texas Looks Ahead in 1944 stressed the interdependence of Texas resources and national and international developments. A revised edition of World Resources and Industries, published in 1951, elaborated his "balanced consideration of geographical, economic, historical, sociological, technological, and political factors" affecting resource availability; by 1956 the book had been adopted at more than 100 universities and issued in Spanish and Japanese translations. His last book, Conservation in the Production of Petroleum, was published in 1957; he continued teaching, however, until his death in 1961. Zimmermann's career involved more than university duties. He served at various times as an economic consultant to the United States departments of Interior and State and held positions as a member of the Puerto Rican Survey of the Brookings Institute, director of research for the Interdepartmental Commission on Puerto Rico, and director of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He belonged to the American Economic Association and the Association of American Geographers and was a popular speaker with business, government, and public audiences. His work on resources brought Zimmermann numerous honors. In 1934 World Resources and Industries won the Mayflower Cup, awarded annually for a nonfiction work by a North Carolina resident. Washington and Lee University granted Zimmermann an honorary law degree in 1949, and he held dual distinguished professorships in resources and economics at the University of Texas. Zimmermann was a Democrat and a Congregationalist. He died in Austin on February 16, 1961.

Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Who Was Who in America, Vol. 4.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Social Sciences
  • Peoples
  • Germans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Douglas E. Barnett, “Zimmermann, Erich Walter,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/zimmermann-erich-walter.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

February 1, 1996
May 7, 2016