Thomas Robert Malthus Biography


Article abstract: The original professor of political economy, Malthus will be forever linked to discussions of the population problem. Terms such as “Malthusian economics” and “neo-Malthusianism” have achieved a permanent place in the English language and suggest the high level of controversy which his work engendered.

Early Life

Thomas Robert Malthus was born on February 13, 1766, at his father’s estate, the Rookery, near Dorking, England. Some biographies incorrectly list February 14, the day of his baptism, as his birthdate. His father, Daniel Malthus, was an Oxford-educated lawyer and a gentleman of some means, as well as an intellectual of the Enlightenment and a devotee of the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Malthus grew up in a genteel, intellectually invigorating environment provided by his father, who was caught up in the exciting ideas of the Age of Reason and the French Revolution. Indeed, Malthus’ great work was initially a reaction to many of those ideas, especially the notion that through the use of reason, humankind could achieve perfection. Privately educated under a series of tutors, Malthus entered Jesus College of Cambridge in 1784 when he was eighteen. There he won prizes in Latin and English grammar, but his chief study was, as his father had suggested, mathematics. In that area, he was graduated as Ninth Wrangler (high honors) and was awarded a fellowship.

Upon graduation, Malthus took religious orders in 1788 and became a pastor in the Church of England, taking charge of the rectory in the village of Surrey in 1793. In 1804, he gave up his fellowship and married Harriet Eckersall, his cousin and eleven years his junior. A devoted family man, his home life appears to have been quite stable, and his wife was reputed to have been a charming hostess. He sired three children—two sons and a daughter who died when she was seventeen, the one note of tragedy in his personal life.

Malthus was a handsome man, with an aristocratic nose, sharp eyes, and a high forehead. He dressed as a gentleman of the day and wore his curly hair short with sideburns. Contemporary sources generally indicate that his personality, despite the heated controversy which ensnared him, was genuinely amiable and pleasant. Even his worst enemies frequently noted his sincerity and fairness. He was, by all reports and in spite of the terrible things which have been said about him, a gentle man.

Life’s Work

In 1805, Malthus received an appointment as professor of history and political economy at the newly founded East India College, the purpose of which was to train civil servants for work in India. This was the first such professorship established, and Malthus retained it until his death. He was a dedicated teacher, called “Pop” by his students.

By the time he left religious work for education, Malthus had already written the book which resulted in his historical significance: An Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers (1798). Despite his other contributions, it was this work which marked him as a man of controversy. The original work was fairly short and published anonymously, but it became widely read, quickly sold out, and generated considerable discussion, not all of it positive. From 1799 to 1802, Malthus traveled widely throughout Europe, going as far as Russia, collecting additional data on his theory that the growth of population will always outstrip the production of food. The second edition, of 1803, was greatly expanded, and while critics still quote from the first edition, it is the 1803 version which represents the fuller accounting of Malthusian principles. During his lifetime, An Essay on the Principle of Population went through six editions, and extracts and complete renditions remain in print.

Malthus was both attacked and admired in his day. In 1819, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1821 he became a charter member of the Political Economy Club, along with David Ricardo, his close friend, and James Mill. In 1824, he received admission as a royal associate into the Royal...

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Contrary to the philosophers Jean- Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin, who professed the inherent goodness and perfectibility of humanity, Malthus argued that poverty could not be abolished, because of the inevitability of population growth consistently exceeding the food supply. While population grew geometrically, according to Malthus, resources grew arithmetically. Thus, population increases always would be checked by famine, disease, and war. Practical application of Malthusian theory occurred in the renovation of English Poor Laws. Believing that poverty was encouraged by the old system, which allowed people to live in their homes with community aid, thereby encouraging them to have many children, Malthus advocated work houses in which the poor would be forced to live and work in conditions sufficiently bad to keep out all but the most desperate. Because of steadily rising food production rates brought about by increasingly sophisticated agricultural techniques, Malthusian predictions of food shortages—on an international scale—have failed to manifest. Yet mounting ecological devastation—frequently caused by exploitative agricultural practices—the poor distribution of food, and unprecedented, unchecked population growth in the twentieth century, as well as predicted population growth in the twenty-first century, will undoubtedly result in a Malthusian ceiling.