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E. Allan Farnsworth was one of the world's foremost legal scholars on contracts. His writings were standard reference in courtrooms and law schools, including Columbia Law School, where he taught for 50 years. He was 76.
Prof. Farnsworth was born on June 30, 1928, in Providence, R.I., the son of a physics professor at Brown University. Prof. Farnsworth received a B.S. in applied mathematics at the University of Michigan in 1948, and an M.A. in physics at Yale in 1949, but declined to go on for his Ph.D.
"I wanted to do something which had a human element in it as opposed to an inanimate object," he told the Law School News in a 1968 interview.
The elder Prof. Farnsworth suggested that his son, with his strong analytical skills, apply to law school. Prof. Farnsworth chose Columbia because the school gave mid-term grades. Thus, if he discovered he couldn't handle the work, he could withdraw without paying for the second semester, recalled his wife, Patricia.
It seems he had little to worry about. He graduated as a Kent Scholar and won the Ordonaux Prize for scholastic excellence. After serving in the Air Force as a captain in the JAG Corps and a brief stint at a law firm in San Francisco, he joined the Columbia faculty in 1954.
He taught Commercial Transactions, Admiralty, Legal Aspects in Foreign Trade, and Contracts, which would soon claim his undivided interest and attention. He befriended Columbia Professor Edwin Patterson, a contracts expert who took the young scholar under his wing. Within 10 years, Prof. Farnsworth would publish three casebooks: Negotiable Instruments (1959), Contracts (1965), Commercial Law (1965). They soon became the most adopted books in their fields. At the time of his death, Cases and Materials on Contracts, the most popular casebook on the subject in the country, was selling 10,000 copies annually, according to Foundation Press, the book's publisher.
Prof. Farnsworth soon expanded his interests and began teaching courses in international commercial transactions. In 1960, he was invited to teach at the University of Istanbul and during his career was a visiting professor in France, Germany, Italy, and China, among other places. His lectures at Istanbul were developed into Introduction to the Legal System of the United States (1963), which was translated into several languages, from Portuguese to Arabic. The Law School named him the Alfred McCormack Professor of Law in 1970, a chair he held at the time of his death.
By the early 1970s, Prof. Farnsworth's career had begun an even more rapid ascent, when the American Law Institute asked him to help in the creation of a definitive guide to contract law. He subsequently became the Reporter for the project, known as the Restatement (Second) of Contracts. The project took more than a decade to complete.
"Professor Farnsworth's work with Professor Braucher of Harvard was an extraordinary achievement," said Professor Lance Liebman, director of the American Law Institute (ALI). "It modernized contract doctrine and achieved a coherent statement of the laws applicable to the diverse sorts of binding agreements that Americans enter into daily."
Prof. Farnsworth was involved in additional service to the legal profession, as well as to the government. Between 1966-72, he served, at the behest of the U.S. State Department, as the American member of an international committee drafting a uniform law on the validity of international sales contracts. From 1970-80, he was the U.S. representative to the UN Commission on International Trade Law, and he represented the United States at diplomatic conferences on international agency and international sales. For two decades until 1998, he was a member of the governing council of the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law and was a member of the working group on UNIDROIT Principles of International Commercial Contracts. (Based in Rome, UNIDROIT is an independent intergovernmental organization whose purpose is to study needs and methods for harmonizing commercial law as between states.)
Outside the office, Prof. Farnsworth was called upon to do important consulting work in public and private law. In recent years, he'd lent his expertise to questions surrounding the freezing of Iraqi assets and contractual issues involving everything from insurance payouts resulting from 9/11 to Mariah Carey's break-up with Virgin Records.
Too numerous to mention in their entirety, Prof. Farnsworth's honors included honorary doctorates from the Dickinson School of Law, the University of Paris, and the University of Louvain; the Law School's Medal for Excellence in 2004; and the ABA's Leonard J. Theberge Award for Private International Law in 1996.
In addition to his scholarly and outside work, Prof. Farnsworth loved teaching, said his daughter, Karen Farnsworth Einsidler ‘81. "He was very demanding, but you often got fair notice. He told students at the beginning of the term, if the class discussion involved a case from a state where you came from, you could assume you'd be called on."
Though ailing, Prof. Farnsworth completed his final book last year. Published in December by Oxford University Press, Alleviating Mistakes: Reversal and Forgiveness for Flawed Perceptions examines the legal issues that arise when people seek to avoid the untoward consequences of an action by claiming that their perception was flawed. True to Prof. Farnsworth's sense of humor, the famous Edvard Munch painting, "The Scream,"appears on the book's cover.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by two more daughters and five grandchildren. His son, Edward Allan Farnsworth, Jr., died in 1993. Prof. Farnsworth was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 3.