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Thomas Robert Malthus was the second and last son in a family of eight. He was born with a hare lip and cleft palate at the Rookery, near Dorking in Surrey on 14 February 1766. His father Daniel, a close friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arranged for him to be educated privately. In 1784 at the age of 18, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where he skated, rowed, played cricket and had a lively social life. He also won prizes for declamations in Latin and Greek, and in 1788 graduated as Ninth Wrangler. The same year he took Holy Orders and in 1796 accepted an Anglican curacy at Albury in Surrey. Meantime he had been made a Fellow of his college and resided there intermittently until 1804 when he married Harriet Eckersall. The following year he was appointed to the East India Company’s newly founded college at Haileybury as the first professor of political economy in the British Isles (fig 1).
The Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, 1766–1834.
In 1798 Malthus had published, anonymously, An essay on the principle of population as it affects the future improvement of society.1 In it he called attention to the disparity between the rate of population growth and the slower increase in the food supply. War, famine, and disease, he pointed out, had to be the eventual alternatives to the limitation of family size. His book caused furious controversy and led him to prepare a more scholarly work. First, though, he took two extensive tours on the continent with friends, collecting statistics and noting local customs and social history. He also made a careful study of population trends in North America. His second book, published in 1803, was a much larger sociological treatise deploying a mass of data in which political philosophy gave way to political economy and to the notion of moral restraint. The controversy continued. His publisher John Murray wrote: “It has been frequently remarked that no work has been so much talked of by persons who do not seem to have read it!” The book went through several editions, and in 1830 he published yet a third work entitled:A summary view of the principle of population.1 The extracts from these works that follow give the flavour of his ideas and philosophy:
Malthus argued against the widely held view of his day that a nation’s resource was determined by the size of its population and that fertility added to national wealth. From his humane concern for the sufferings caused by overpopulation arose his anxiety that the poor-laws should not lead to a relaxation of moral restraint and large families. By moral restraint he meant delayed marriage and sexual abstinence for adults until they were economically able to support their children. While it was generally supposed that Malthus was in favour of contraception, in fact as an Anglican minister he disapproved of it. However, others took a different view and the English sociologist, Francis Page, himself the father of 15 children, drew attention to the value of contraception in the 1820s, writing: “ ... once it has become the custom ... to limit the number of children so that none need have more than they wish to have, no man will fear to take a wife, all will be married while young—debauchery will diminish— while good morals, and religious duties will be promoted.”3 The movement for birth control gradually gained momentum in the years that followed with the final breakthrough in the next century, thanks in particular to two remarkable women, Margaret Sanger in the United States and Marie Stopes in Great Britain.
In 1819 Malthus was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1821 a member of the Political Economy Club, and in 1824 a royal associate of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1834 he was one of the cofounders of the Royal Statistical Society. Honours also came to him from France and Germany.
Thomas was a very pleasant, shy, and scholarly man who was popular with his students; they called him “Pop.” His marriage to Harriet was a happy one and they had a son and two daughters. The family remained at Haileybury for the remainder of his life. In 1834, at the age of 68, while on a visit to his wife’s family home near Bath, he collapsed and died. He was buried in Bath Abbey. His old friend from Cambridge days, Bishop Otter, wrote his epitaph:
In 1838, four years after Malthus’ death, Charles Darwin, back from his voyage on HMS Beagle (1831–6), was searching for a mechanism to explain the transmutation of species. On reading Malthus’ essay on the principle of population, he at once grasped the possible implication of the checks that controlled population growth and wrote: “...favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed ... The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.” Twenty one years later he published his famous bookOn the origin of species by means of natural selection.4 It too raised a storm of controversy and protest.
Today, 200 years after Malthus first published his ideas, his message remains prophetic. Epidemics may be less lethal and crops more abundant, but populations are still outstripping food production in many parts of the world, and wars remain as destructive as ever.