8 April 2015 marked the 80th anniversary of the death of political economist Edwin Cannan. LSE Archivist Sue Donnelly introduces the man who from the opening of the School in 1895 until his retirement in 1926 was the leading economist at LSE.
Edwin Cannan was born in Madeira, where the family lived because of his mother’s poor health. By the age of 16 Cannan had lost both his parents but with a secure private income was able to attend Balliol College, Oxford. However, his own ill health meant he took a pass rather than an honours degree in 1884. The following ten years were spent researching and writing mainly on the philosopher Saint-Simon and political economy.
It is likely that Cannan first met Sidney Webb in 1889 when he gave a paper to the Fabian Society on economics and socialism. In 1895 Sidney Webb persuaded Cannan to join LSE and he started his LSE career with a series of lectures on local government taxation. After the School joined the University of London in 1900 Cannan became Dean of the Faculty of Economics until 1904. Cannan’s sixty lecture series on the principles of economics was the foundation of the study of economics at LSE. The lectures given to first year students formed the basis of Cannan’s introductory text book Wealth published in 1914 and a copy was placed in a time capsule buried under the foundation stone of the Old Building extension in 1920. The lectures given to second and third year students eventually led to the publication of A Review of Economic Theory after Cannan’s retirement in 1929.
In 1907 Cannan became Professor of Political Economy in the University of London, the same year in which he married his second cousin Rita. Sadly their only son, David, died in 1918. When the School’s journal Economica was founded in 1921 Cannan was a founding editor alongside Graham Wallas and Arthur Bowley. He also served on the Rockefeller Committee established by William Beveridge reviewing proposals and reports on funding.
Alongside the economics text books Cannan is best known for his work on the eighteenth century economist, Adam Smith. In 1895 a meeting with an Edinburgh lawyer provided him with a set of student notes from Smith’s lectures at Glasgow University in 1763 and these were published in 1896 with notes and a preface by Cannan as Lectures on Justice, Policy, Revenue and Arms. This was followed in 1904 by a critical edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, only superseded in 1976.
Beyond LSE Cannan served as President of the Royal Economic Society from 1932-1934 and an interest in local government was followed by long service as Oxford University’s representative on Oxford City Council from 1896.
Cannan did not receive universal praise as a teacher – Lionel Robbins was his student after the First World War and criticised his lack of interest in American and European economic thought – something he sought to rectify on his appointment as Professor in 1929. Friedrich Hayek was more positive claiming that Cannan had played a significant role in the transmission of liberal thought in economics.
Today his most obvious contribution to the School is the suggestion in 1921 that the School adopt ‘Rerum Cognoscere Causas’ from Virgil’s Georgics as its motto.
Throughout his years at LSE Cannan continued to live in Oxford with his lectures finishing at precisely 6.57pm so that he could catch the 7.30pm train to home. A keen cyclist, during the 1926 General Strike he cycled from Oxford to London where LSE’s Director, William Beveridge, provided a bed for the night.
Contributed by Sue Donnelly (LSE Archivist)
LSE Digital Library exhibition Economics at LSE since 1895