Thomas Malthus biography
An Essay on the
Principle of Population
Thomas Malthus was born near Guildford, Surrey, England in 1766
into a well-off family. He was educated from 1784 at Jesus
College, Cambridge where he achieved distinguished marks in his
mathematical studies. He was subsequently ordained as an Anglican
cleric in 1797 despite having an inconvenient speech impediment.
He became curate of the parish of Albury in Surrey in 1798 and
held this post for a short time.
His main contribution is to Economics where a theory,
published anonymously as "An Essay on the Principle of
Population" in 1798 has as a central argument that populations
tend to increase faster than the supply of food available for
To quote directly from the essay:-
"Population, when unchecked, increases
in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an
arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show
the immensity of the first power compared to the
The essay thus anticipated that this propensity could only lead
to real distress:-
" The number of labourers also being
above the proportion of work in the market, the price of labor
must tend towards a decrease; while the price of provisions would
at the same time tend to rise".
This theory of the effective inevitability of poverty and
distress contradicted the optimistic belief prevailing in the
early 19th century, that a society's fertility would lead to
economic progress and helped to give Economics, then more
frequently known as "Political Economy" the alternative name of
"The Dismal Science."
Earlier that year the British statesman William Pitt had
proposed that poor relief should give special consideration to
the encouragement of large families as "those who, after
having enriched their country with a number of children, have a
claim upon its assistance for their support." In the event
Malthus's theory was often used as an argument against efforts to
better the condition of the poor.
Malthus later went so far as to suggest that, for the
lessening of the probability of a miserable existence for the
poor, it was advisable to seek to cut the birth rate in society.
This suggestion was unmistakably outrageous given the moralities
of the times (and would doubtless be most controversial
The Essay on the Principles of Population and other writings
encouraged the first systematic demographic studies and also had
a significant influence in several ways:-
In Economics David Ricardo's, "iron law of wages" and theory
of distribution of wealth contain some elements of Malthus'
Of far more dramatic significance is the fact that both
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace admitted that the food
scarcities regarded as being normal by Malthus had been of
KEY influence on their seperate development of theories of
the evolutionary Origin of Species.
From 1805 until his death Thomas Malthus was Professor of
Modern History and Political Economy at the newly established
college of the East India Company at Haileybury. This appointment
may have been the first professional post in Economics held by
anyone in human history.
Other works include An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of
Rent (1815) and Principles of Political Economy (1820).
Essay on the Principles of Population