Elizur Wright, the First Commissioner of Insurance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
While New Hampshire was the first state to actually appoint a Commissioner of Insurance in 1851, Massachusetts quickly followed suit appointing its own Commissioner, Elizur Wright, in 1858. Connecticut born and educated, Mr. Wright was both a mathematician and abolitionist. After attending Yale, Mr. Wright taught for two years at the Groton school before moving to Ohio, where he spent four years as a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the Western College in Reserve Hudson, Ohio.
In 1838, Mr. Wright moved to Boston was to assume the editorship of the Massachusetts Abolitionist, a position he held for only a year from 1838-1839. After leaving that periodical, Mr. Wright attempted a translation of the French The Fables of La Fontaine which did not meet with much financial success. In 1846, he founded Chronotype, a newspaper which eventually folded into the Commonwealth newspaper of which he was also editor for a short time.
Often called the “Father of Insurance Regulation”
According to Wikipedia and Appeltons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography, Mr. Wright first became interested in insurance regulation in 1852. An excerpt reprinted in NYU’s Stern School’s Insurance History gives more insight into Mr. Wrights introduction into insurance.
While in England he had taken notice of the life-insurance companies there, which were in a more advanced stage than those in America. They interested him as a mathematical study, and also from the humanitarian point of view. He purchased “David Jones on Annuities,” and the best works on life insurance. These he read with the same ardor with which young ladies devour an exciting novel, and without the least expectation that they might ever bring dollars and cents to him; until one day in the spring of 1852 an insurance solicitor placed an advertising booklet in his hand as he was entering the office of the Chronotype. [This was Wright’s anti-slavery paper.]
Elizur Wright looked it over and perceived quickly enough that no company could undertake to do what this one pretended to and remain solvent. The booklet served him for an editorial, and before one o’clock the next day agents from every life company in Boston were collected in his office. They supposed at first that it was an attempt at blackmail, but soon discovered that Elizur Wright knew more about the subject than any of them. Neither threats nor persuasions had any effect on this uncompromising backwoodsman. Only on one condition would Mr. Wright retract his statements,—that the companies should reform their circulars and place their affairs in a more sound condition. The consequence of this was an invitation from the presidents of several of the companies for Mr. Wright to call at their offices and discuss the subject with them.
From then on, Mr. Wright’s interest in insurance only grew stronger. He went on to develop actuarial tables as well as mathematical calculations for life insurance premiums. In 1853, he published his volume “Life Insurance Valuation Tables” (2d ed., revised and enlarged, 1871). Five years later in 1858, Mr. Wright was successful in securing an act of the Massachusetts Legislature which organized an insurance commission for the Commonwealth and which included a requirement of the annual valuation of the policy liabilities of all life-insurance companies in the state. It was under this same act that the Legislature decided to appoint Mr. Wright as the first insurance commissioner of Massachusetts. It was a position he would hold for eight years until 1866.
During his time as Commissioner, Commissioner Wright obtained the passage of the Massachusetts non-forfeiture act of 1861, as well as its substitute 19 years later in 1880. This act was eventually included, albeit with some changes, in the insurance codification bill of 1887.
After leaving office, former Commissioner Wright continued his innovations in insurance devising a new formula now known as the “accumulation formula.” In 1869, he invented and patented the “arithmeter” a calculating machine for multiplication and division based upon a logarithmic principle and basically a form of cylindrical slide rule in order to aid in his insurance work. In 1873, he also published another volume entitled The Politics and Mysteries of Life Insurance. In addition to his inventions and writing, he became a consulting actuary for various life-insurance companies in the Commonwealth.
Apparently, as the Stern School profile notes, Mr. Wright’s insurance reports were of such caliber that they brought him great celebrity to the point where all of the insurance companies wished to have his name connected with their company.
It is interesting to note that his love of insurance greatly influenced his children as well. His son, Walter C. Wright, went on to become an actuary of the New England Life, while his daughter, Miss Jane Wright, became an actuary of the Mutual Union Company. As for his eldest son, John, he and his father set up a business for calculating the value of insurance policies. Using the arithmeter machine that Mr. Wright had invented and patented, the business became wildly successful. With the income generated from that, Mr. Wright used his first $10,000 dollars in proceeds to purchase a large house and tract of land in Middlesex Fells.
Elizur Wrights later years and his legacy in creating the Middlesex Fells Association
While former Commissioner Wright continued to be involved and interested in insurance matters for the rest of his life, in his later years he also became interested in forest preservation. After purchasing a house in Medford, Mr. Wright became a passionate advocate for land conservation. As a member of the Forestry Association, he was instrumental in the creation of the Massachusetts Forestry Act of 1882. His vision, which he did not live to see, was the creation and promotion for what is today known as the Middlesex Fells. On the Friends of the Fells website, it says of Wright:
Elizur Wright’s experience of this wild rugged landscape inspired him to agitate in newspaper articles, pamphlets and speeches for the Fells to become “devoted to forest culture and preservation, science, education and rational recreation,” meanwhile forging alliances with others who shared this vision.
For those familiar with the 2,200-acre state park bordering Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Winchester, both Wright’s tower and Wright’s pond were named in honor of the Fells founder.
An interesting and innovative thinker, Elizur Wright’s lasting legacy in the Massachusetts insurance industry is one that should be remembered and celebrated.