You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Economics in Action: The Life-Changing, Nobel-Winning Work of Al Roth

A few years back, while on a visit to the University of Cincinnati, Al Roth decided to skip breakfast. A noted economist at Harvard, Roth was responsible for algorithms that matched medical students with their residency programs, children with their schools in Boston, and more recently, compatible kidney donors and transplant patients in paired donations. So, when the paired donation consortium in Ohio learned that Roth was going to be in town, they invited him in to observe an early-morning transplant that had resulted from his work.

Roth skipped breakfast as a precaution. Later, he told me that the surgery was so interesting to watch, he was pretty sure he could have eaten beforehand and not had a problem.

Listening to him, I wondered how many economists got to see their work in action. Roth’s influence is anything but theoretical. His effects on society are far-reaching, touching many lives, including those of the tens of thousands of new doctors who seek their first job in the field each year.

Each March, Roth’s algorithm runs on the National Resident Matching Program’s computer, taking the ordered lists of preferences for residency programs submitted by graduating medical students, and the ranking of candidates submitted by hospitals, and assigns the best-possible match for each.

Support thought-provoking, quality journalism. Join The New Republic for $3.99/month. 

Despite this, Roth probably remained unrecognizable to most physicians whose lives his work deeply touched. He was probably unknown to the transplant patients who received an organ donation due to his work.

At least until yesterday.

On Monday, Roth awoke to the news that he and Lloyd Shapley (whose work provided the basis for Roth's models) had been named recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics. Asleep when the call came at 3:30 am, he didn’t make it to the phone in time. Sweden called back, shortly thereafter, with the callers spending much time to make sure Roth knew this was not a prank. A few hours later, at the press conference Stanford University held for him, he looked clearly humbled. He began his brief remarks with a little joke, followed by a “thank you,” when he got the desired laugh. He tried to deflect much of the praise. And he made sure the press conference was held early enough so that he would not miss his 11 am class.

I first met Roth while working on Match Day, a book that followed three graduating medical school students through the National Resident Matching Program via Roth’s algorithm, and into their first year as doctors. I took the bus up to Cambridge from New York, where I was living at the time, and found my way to Roth’s office. There, surrounded by several of his doctoral students, he was eager to talk about anything I wanted. He seemed approachable, naturally curious, and we chatted about the medical match, stable matching, and his work to improve the number of the number of successful matches for kidney transplants. He engaged his students in the discussion too, having them share their own research and studies.

Roth invited me back to visit several times. In addition to watching a sharp mind analyze ways to improve the world, what I saw most was a caring teacher. Wearing sneakers and wandering the room, Roth led his students through a course on market design. Afterwards, he joined them for lunch to talk some more. He engaged them, asking about their lives and their work. When he announced, this year, that he would be moving to Stanford after a decade and a half at Harvard, one of the reasons he gave was that the chance to be a colleague with some of his former students seemed like fun.

During one of my reporting visits, Roth recounted how, for his fiftieth birthday, his colleagues had crowned him with a hat that read, “Mr. Matching.” After yesterday’s announcement, I suspect those colleagues might have a new hat made.

Brian Eule is the author of Match Day: One Day and One Dramatic Year in the Lives of Three New Doctors (St. Martin’s Press).