Ben William Lewis was born on November 5, 1900 in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan to William E. and Bertha Louise (Kinney) Lewis. From 1918 to 1919, he attended Central State Teachers College (Central Michigan University) in Mt. Pleasant. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with the A.B. from the University of Michigan in 1922, receiving the A.M. (1923) and Ph.D. (1926) degrees in Economics from the same institution. Lewis' dissertation focused on going concern value in the field of public utility regulation. Lewis studied law at Harvard Law School (1927-28) and the University of Michigan Law School (1929-30), taking the LL.B. degree from Cleveland's Western Reserve Law School in 1934. In 1955, Lewis was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Oberlin College awarded Lewis the honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1969, two years following his retirement.
Lewis' professional career spanned over a half-century. From 1925 to 1967, he taught economics at Oberlin College. He began teaching in 1922 at the University of Michigan while working towards his master's degree. In 1925, he came to Oberlin College as Assistant Professor of Economics, reaching the rank of Associate Professor in 1928 and Professor in 1936. He served as Chairman of the Economics Department from 1951 to 1965. In 1953, he was named to the Avery Professorship in Economics. Ben Lewis trained numerous economics professors, college and university administrators, and public servants. Among his more prominent students were Walter W. Heller (1915-87; A.B. 1935), economic adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Everett Hawkins (1906-70; A.B. 1928), development economist and adviser to Southeast Asian governments, and Nancy Hays Teeters (b. 1930; A.B. 1952), the first woman to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Ben Lewis influenced the evolution of faculty-trustee relations at Oberlin from 1945 until his retirement in 1967. He served on the College's General Faculty and College Faculty councils from 1945 to 1967 and on the Trustee-Faculty Conference Committee from its inception in 1947 until 1959.
Throughout his career, Lewis promoted the cause of economic education. He was Chairman of the American Economic Association Committee on Economics in Teacher Education (1954-64), Consultant to the Business Education Committee of the Committee for Economic Development, founding member and Vice President of the Joint Council on Economic Education (1963-68), and Chairman of the Advisory Selection Committee for Fulbright postdoctoral awards in economics (1952-57). He held summer academic appointments at the Universities of Chicago (1931, 1937), Colorado (1959), Michigan (1946, 1948, 1951-58), Minnesota (1950), California (1949), Columbia University (1947), and Pomona College in California (1952).
Ben Lewis combined teaching duties with service to the federal government. His work for the government began during the first phase of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Lewis held the position of Economic Advisor for the Consumers Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration from 1934 to 1935, when the United States Supreme Court ruled the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional. During the year 1935-36, Lewis studied in England on a traveling fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. His research on government regulatory control of the electrical power industry was published in the 1937 pamphlet, Price Production and Control in British Industry. From 1938 to 1939, he was a part-time member of the Brookings Institution staff. In 1940, Lewis became Chief Economist in the newly established Consumers Division of the U. S. Department of Interior's National Defense Advisory Commission. The Division's purpose was to maintain and strengthen the supply of consumer goods as the nation readied for possible war. As Chief Economist, Lewis recruited economic experts to join the staff of the Commissioner on Consumer Problems. In July 1941, after his position had been eliminated by executive order of the President, Lewis was named Price Executive in charge of the rubber and rubber products section, Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply. Assistant Administrator in charge of the Price Division was John Kenneth Galbraith (b. 1908). In 1943, following Congress' failure to appropriate sufficient funding for his salary at the O. P. A., Lewis accepted joint positions with the Foreign Economic Administration and the Office of Alien Property Custodian, as Chairman of the Patent Contracts Committee. In August of 1944, the newly established United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) recruited Lewis as Chief of their London Distribution office, in charge of distribution policy for all of Europe. Lewis declined the post to fulfill his obligations in Washington and Oberlin.
In 1959, Lewis began a long association with the Ford Foundation as a consultant for governments of developing countries. These assignments were part-time from 1959 to 1967 and full-time from 1967 to 1971, when he served as Program Advisor with the Foundation's Middle East and Africa Program. Lewis' first overseas assignment came in April 1959, when he was appointed Consultant to the Jordan Development Board for a two-month period. Lewis returned several times to Jordan during the period 1959 to 1965. He also consulted in the field of economic planning in Nigeria (1961), Kenya and Tanzania (1962-66), Latin America, (1966-70), Nepal (1970), the Philippines (1970), Southeast Asia (1969-71), and Turkey (1969-73). His recruitment activities for the Ford Foundation also took him frequently to Europe. As an independent consultant, he advised the governments of Venezuela (1953) and Saudi Arabia (1974-76).
Lewis was a gifted writer and public speaker. His articles appeared in the leading economic journals, including the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Political Economy, Public Utilities Fortnightly, and the Journal of Economic History. He also wrote for legal and business periodicals such as The George Washington Law Review, the Cornell Law Quarterly, and the Harvard Business Review. His publications include British Planning and Nationalization (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1952), a Brookings Institution study, "Public Utilities", in Government and Economic Life (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1940, vol. 2), and Public Utility Regulation (s.l., 195-?). He authored numerous book reviews and served as economics editor for Appleton-Century-Crofts (1958-68). He was a member of the board of editors of the American Economic Review (1941-43), the journal of the American Economic Association.
From 1926 to 1984, Lewis served the Oberlin community in numerous capacities. He was a director of the Oberlin Savings Bank from 1940 to 1959 and a member of the Public Utilities Committee of the Oberlin City Council from 1947 to 1955. He also served as a consultant for the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, testifying at hearings before the Commission on matters relating to going value (1933-35). He was a longtime member of the vestry of Oberlin's Christ Episcopal Church. For four years, (1964-68), he served as a trustee of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association.
Ben Lewis married Gertrude Mae Dodds (1900-85) of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan on September 7, 1923. They had two children, Harriet Patricia (b. 1929; A.B. Oberlin 1950) and John Francis (b. 1933? A.B. Amherst College, 1955). Lewis died in Cleveland on November 29, 1987 at age 87. Contributions from friends and Oberlin College Board of Trustee Robert S. Danforth made possible the establishment of the Robert S. Danforth/Ben Lewis Professorship in Economics in December 1987.