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Education And Debate

History: Two hundred years since Malthus

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 December 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1686
  1. John A Black, retired consultant paediatriciana
  1. a Victoria Mill House, Framlingham, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP13 9EG


Malthus was by training a mathematician and by profession a teacher of political economy, but his work was greatly influenced by his Christian convictions. In the first edition of his Essay, published in 1798, he put forward the hypothesis that population, if unchecked, would increase by geometrical ratio, doubling itself every 25 years, while food supply could increase by only arithmetical ratio. He suggested that population was controlled by “positive checks” such as war, famine, and disease.

He campaigned unsuccessfully for the gradual abolition of the old poor laws which, he thought, encouraged the working class to marry young and to have large families. In his second edition he introduced the concept of the “preventive checks” by moral restraint—late marriage and restraint within marriage. The reduction in fertility which Malthus advocated was achieved by the acceptance of birth control, to which he was violently opposed. He was attacked during his lifetime and has been misinterpreted and misunderstood ever since.

Academic career

Thomas Robert Malthus (known as Robert) (fig 1) was born on 14 February 1766 near Dorking, Surrey. He was born with a cleft lip and palate, but this does not seem to have hindered his academic career. In 1785 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read mathematics, obtaining a first class degree. He was elected fellow of the college in 1797, and four years later took Holy Orders. In 1805 he was appointed professor of history and political economy at the newly founded College of the East India Company, at Haileybury, in Hertfordshire (now Haileybury and Imperial Service College). He held this post until his death in 1834 from “disease of the heart” in Bath (fig 2). He married at the age of 38 and had three children.

Fig 1

John Linnell's portrait of Malthus in 1833, aged 67. (Reproduced with …

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