North, born in 1920, graduated with a triple bachelor's degree in political science, philosophy and economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1942, and later, in 1952, earned a doctorate in economics there. At the University of Washington in Seattle he spent 33 years as a member of the economics faculty, including a tenure as department chair and later as director of the Institute for Economic Research. He was the Peterkin Professor of Political Economics at Rice University in 1979, Pitt Professor of American Institutions at Cambridge University in 1981, and Visiting Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in 1987-88. North joined Washington University in 1983 as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Law and Liberty in the Department of Economics in Arts & Sciences, and served as director of the Center in Political Economy here from 1984 to 1990.
In 1992 he became the first economic historian ever to win one of the economics profession's most prestigious honors, the John R. Commons Award. Furthermore, North is a founder of Washington University's Center for New Institutional Social Sciences.
In 1993, North shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics with Professor Fogel for ”having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change” (The Nobel e-Museum).
North's research has focused on the formation of political and economic institutions and the consequences of these institutions on the performance of economies through time, including such areas as property rights, transaction costs, and the free rider problem. North is recognized as one of the founders of the "new institutional economics," and has done important work on the connection of the cognitive sciences to economic theory.