Marilyn Coopersmith, who worked for decades at the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics and performed valuable research for a Nobel laureate, died on May 19, 2021, at the age of 88. 

Coopersmith was born on October 13, 1932, in Philadelphia. She graduated from Haddonfield High School in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and attended several community colleges, said her companion, Joe Marlin. 

She worked for Warner Bros. studios in Philadelphia, going to movie theaters and recording audience reactions to company films. She nearly became even more closely involved with the industry, recounted Marlin. 

“Once she was walking down the street in Philadelphia and a scout — she was a very attractive woman — stopped her and wanted her to go to Hollywood to try out for the movies,” he said. “She refused and then he told her, ‘I’ll even take your mother along.’ But she still refused.” 

Marilyn moved to Hyde Park in the early sixties after marrying Russell Coopersmith. She took a job in 1965 at the U. of C.’s Department of Economics, then near the height of its neoclassical powers. She would hold positions there for the next 33 years, serving as the administrative assistant of the Development of the American Economy program and the associate director of the Center for Population Economics. She took on a variety of tasks in that period: researcher, budget manager, student adviser. 

“A graduate student came to her once because he had gotten a B in a course, and that was very upsetting,” Marlin said. “He told her that at Harvard he had gotten all A’s. She told him that he wasn’t at Harvard now. It was kind of tough love — she was empathic, and she was very smart and very shrewd.” 

Coopersmith served as a research assistant to Robert Fogel, an economic historian known for his work on slavery and railroads. She would travel around the country “to county courthouses and look at these old records that were dusty and handwritten and hard to read,” said Marlin. 

When Fogel won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1993, he brought Coopersmith and her family with him to the week-long celebrations in Stockholm, Sweden, where they attended dinners, dances and lectures. 

Fogel, who died in 2013, also praised Coopersmith in his biographical note after he was awarded the prize. “It is known far and wide among economic historians that much of the credit for the success of my research enterprises goes to Marilyn Coopersmith who has worked with me for more than a quarter of a century,” he wrote. “She is not only an effective coordinator but has been a diligent researcher and a friend to a legion of graduate research assistants, who often turned to her for help in overcoming bureaucratic obstacles.”

Coopersmith was a congregant at KAM Isaiah Israel and an active member of Al-Anon Family Groups. She was preceded in death by her husband, Russell Coopersmith, and one son. She is survived by a second son, Bruce Liss, and her companion Joe Marlin. Contributions can be made to KAM Isaiah Israel or to the Alzheimer’s Association.


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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