Adam Smith

Adam Smith
(1723 - 1790)

Economist and philosopher, born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, East Scotland, UK. He studied at Glasgow and Oxford, and became professor of logic at Glasgow (1751), but took up the chair of moral philosophy the following year. In 1776 he moved to London, where he published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), the first major work of political economy. This examined in detail the consequences of economic freedom, such as division of labour, the function of markets, and the international implications of a laissez-faire economy. His appointment as commissioner of customs in 1778 took him back to Edinburgh.

Not much is known about Smith's personal views beyond what can be deduced from his published articles. His personal papers were destroyed after his death at his request. He never married, and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived after his return from France and who died six years before his own death.

Smith, who is often described as a prototypical absent-minded professor, is considered by historians to have been an eccentric but benevolent intellectual, comically absent-minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait, and a smile of "inexpressible benignity". He was known to talk to himself,[a habit that began during his childhood when he would speak to himself and smile in rapt conversation with invisible companions. He also had occasional spells of imaginary illness, and he is reported to have had books and papers placed in tall stacks in his study.

Various anecdotes have discussed his absent-minded nature. In one story, Smith took Charles Townshend on a tour of a tanning factory, and while discussing free trade, Smith walked into a huge tanning pit from which he needed help to escape. Another episode records that he put bread and butter into a teapot, drank the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he ever had. In another example, Smith went out walking and day-dreaming in his nightgown and ended up 15 miles (24 km) outside town before nearby church bells brought him back to reality.

James Boswell who was a student of Smith's at Glasgow University, and later knew him at the Literary Club, says that Smith thought that speaking about his ideas in conversation might reduce the sale of his books, and so his conversation was unimpressive. According to Boswell, he once told Sir Joshua Reynolds that 'he made it a rule when in company never to talk of what he understood'.