Otto Albert Hirschman (1915–2012) was born in Berlin to a family of middle class assimilated Jews. He studied at the Französisches Gymnasium and then enrolled in the Faculty of Economics at Humboldt University, but soon had to emigrate. He continued his studies at the Ecole des Haute Etudes Commerciales in Paris, the London School of Economics, and finally at the University of Trieste, where he worked in close collaboration with his brother-in-law Eugenio Colorni and from where he received his degree in economics in 1938.

Involved in several anti-Nazi and anti-fascist activities in France, Spain and Italy, he took refuge across the Alps after the enactment of racial laws and the arrest of Eugenio. He enlisted in the French army and, along with Varian Fry, dedicated himself to rescuing scores of European intellectuals, helping them escape to the United States.

Changing his name to Albert O. Hirschman, he enlisted in the American armed forces and returned to Italy with the Allies. After the war, he worked on the Marshall Plan as an economist with the Federal Reserve, researching the Italian and French economies and some inter-European payment schemes.

In 1952, he moved with his family to Colombia, thereby developing a semi-exclusive interest in the problems of less-developed countries that would occupy him for almost 14 years. Professor of development economics and international economics at the University of Columbia and later at Harvard, he moved in 1974 to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (NJ) as a professor of social science. There, he worked with Clifford Geertz and other scholars towards the development of a new interpretive social science.