Malthus, Thomas Robert

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Thomas Robert MALTHUS

b. 14 February 1766 - d. 23 December 1834

Summary. Malthus was a pivotal figure in the development of the empirical study of human populations as a field of intellectual investigation.

T R Malthus, English economist, statistician and demographer, was born at Guilford, Surrey. His father was a prosperous country gentleman with intellectual interests, who was a friend and admirer of both David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Under the influence of Rousseau's Emile, the father arranged for Malthus and his brother to be educated at various private schools. At the age of 18, Robert Malthus entered Jesus College Cambridge, where he was elected a fellow in 1797. Malthus is best known for his Essay on the Principle of Population, the central theme of which was that there was an inherent tendency for human numbers to `outstrip the means of subsistence', and that human improvement therefore depended on stern limits on reproduction. The original essay, published anonymously in 1798, was directed against the optimistic speculations of certain utopian writers who could see no limit to human progress. It brought Malthus immediate fame, but also notoriety among those who believed that the young clergyman's doctrine amounted to a questioning of divine providence. In Essays In Biography (1933), the British economist John Maynard Keynes (q.v.) was to write of this pamphlet that

The voice of objective reason had been raised against a deep instinct which the evolutionary struggle had been implanting from the commencement of life; and man's mind, in the conscious pursuit of happiness, was daring to demand the reins of government from out of the hands of the unconscious urge for mere predominant survival.

There were not many statistics in the first book, though Malthus did draw upon the estimates of the numbers of births and deaths which had been made or quoted during the preceding century by his countrymen Gregory King, Thomas Short and Richard Price. Perhaps because of the stir which his book created, Malthus immediately settled down to a thorough examination of all of the available information bearing upon the principle which he had enunciated. The result, published in 1803 in Malthus' own name, was a book of nearly four times the length of the original essay. In The Economics of Industry (1896), another British economist, Alfred Marshall, was to rate this book as `one of the most crushing answers that patient and hard-working science has ever given to the reckless assertions of its adversaries'.

In 1805 Malthus was appointed professor of history and political economy at the new East India College, a chair which he was to occupy until his death almost thirty years later. In addition to producing important works in political economy, the originality of which came to be increasingly recognised in the twentieth century, Malthus continued to refine his study of the principle of population in further editions of the Essay, including in appendices to the 1806 and 1817 editions in which he sought `to correct some of the misrepresentations which have gone abroad respecting two or three of the most important points of the Essay'.

Increasingly, Malthus' Essay became an empirical and statistical work. In a recent assessment in The Rise of Political Economy as a Science (1997), Deborah Redman notes that Malthus `culled evidence from every region in the world, every period of history, and every stage in society', and that he 'was familiar with the life expectancy tables of Euler, Barton, Sussmilch (q.v.), Milne and others'. Redman recognises, however, that Malthus' use of statistics was not always above criticism.

The most succinct statement of Malthus' mature views on population issues appeared in his article on `Population' in the 1824 Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which was issued separately in 1830, with a few amendments, as A Summary View of the Principle of Population. In this work, Malthus makes extensive use of population, vital statistics and baptism and burial records relating to the United States, Latin America and a number of European countries.

In his declining years, Malthus was active in the promotion of statistics as a profession and as a discipline. On 27 June 1833, in the course of a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge, he took the chair at a meeting of eight `Gentlemen desirous of forming a Statistical Section of the... Association'. He was also a founding member of the (London) Royal Society of Statistics in the following year. In Population Malthus (1979), Malthus' biographer, Patricia James, records that his `pursuit of accurate statistics and their correct interpretation [were]... among the intellectual passions in his life'.

Malthus married in 1804. His family life seems to have been extremely happy. The Malthuses had three children, of whom the younger daughter, to their great grief, died in 1825 at age 17. Malthus died on 23 December 1834, while on a visit to his wife's family in Bath. His last words on the subject of population survive in a letter of thanks to an unknown Jacqueline. Writing three months before his death to a young lady who had apparently spoken up in his defence, Britain's first professor of political economy said that he was glad that she had vindicated him `against the accusation of massacring children', and urged her to point out that `I have specifically proposed as the best criterion of the happiness and good government of a country the number of the children born who arrive at the age of puberty.'

In his introduction to the eight-volume edition of the collected works (1986), the English historical demographer E A Wrigley recognised Malthus' seminal contribution to population studies:

... Malthus bestowed life on population studies as a field of intellectual investigation by showing how strategic to the understanding of the functioning of society a knowledge of its demography might be.... His range of interests was so catholic and his penetration so acute that few social scientists today, as yesterday, should fail to be stimulated by reading his works.

Recently, Caldwell (1998) argues that Malthus, whether right or wrong, has been very influential, in the later 20th Century, on the policies which have been adopted by the developing world.


[1] Caldwell, J.C. (1998). Malthus and the less developed world: the pivotal role of India. Population and Development Review, 24, 675-696.
[2] Castles, Ian (1998). From the Desk of Malthus: How the population debate began, National Library of Australia News, September, pp. 3-6.
[3] Flew, Antony (1970). Introduction to Malthus, T R, An Essay on the Principle of Population and A Summary View of the Principle of Population, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
[4] Keynes, J.M. (1963). Robert Malthus: the first of the Cambridge economists. In Essays in Biography, Norton, New York.
[5] Redman, Deborah A. (1997). The Rise of Political Economy as a Science: Methodology and the Classical Economists. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, pp. 259-320.
[6] Wrigley, E.A. (1986). `Introduction' to Wrigley, E A and David Souden, eds, The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus. W. Pickering, London, Vol. 1, pp. 38-9.

Reprinted with permission from Christopher Charles Heyde and Eugene William Seneta (Editors), Statisticians of the Centuries, Springer-Verlag Inc., New York, USA.

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Malthus, Thomas Robert. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:,_Thomas_Robert&oldid=39228