School of Economics

The age of Nicholson

Joseph Shield Nicholson was professor from 1880-1925 until ill-health compelled him to retire early at 75.

Joseph Shield Nicholson (1850-1927)

The foundations of an Economics study programme were laid during his long tenure of the chair at Edinburgh, although throughout this period political economy was part of the Department of Mental Philosophy.

An honours degree in Economic Science was introduced and the staff was enlarged to include:

  • three lecturers in Economics
  • a lecturer in Economic History
  • readers in Statistics and Politics
  • a department of Commerce


Nicholson was born in Lincolnshire, and was educated at King's College, London, the University of Edinburgh and Göttingen Universitat, Trinity College in Cambridge and MA, London University 1877 where he was awarded a special distinction in political economy.

In 1878 he was awarded the Cambridge Cobden Club Prize for an essay on 'The Effects of Machinery on Wages'.


From 1876 to 1880 he was a private tutor in Cambridge, where he taught political economy, economic history, constitutional history and political philosophy, while he spent his free time rowing, fishing in the Scottish Highlands and playing chess. During this period, he lectured on political economy for the Association for the Higher Education of Women in Cambridge. In 1880, before his thirtieth birthday, he was elected to the Edinburgh chair before he married William Ballantyne Hodgson's daughter four years later.


Nicholson was a prolific writer: In his edition of Smith's Wealth of Nations (1884) he quickly displayed his devotion to the founder of classical economics.

His major work; Principles of Political Economy (3 vols. 1893, 1897, 1901); combined the historical and mathematical approaches to the subject and concluded with an extraordinary statement of his Christian faith.

Although the Cambridge economist Alfred Marshall disputed Nicholson's treatment of the consumer's surplus, quasi-rent and the influence of silver prices on gold prices, he noted 'the joy with which he contemplated that very large part of the field of economics in which you are unsurpassed and have well earned everlasting fame'.

Nicholson wrote a great deal on monetary issues and bimetallism, including:

  • The Silver Question (1886)
  • Money and Monetary Problems (1888)
  • Bankers's Money (1888)

He wrote two books on Ariosto and three novels:

  • A Dreamer of Dreams (1889)
  • Thoth (1888)
  • Toxar (1890)

Although most of his writing was in book form, he was one of the earliest contributors to economic journals. By 1920 he had published eighteen articles in the core journals:

  • Journal of the Royal Statistical Society
  • Journal of Political Economy
  • Economic Journal

Teaching at Edinburgh

Class structure

As professor his central task was to lecture five hours a week throughout the Autumn and Spring terms, which amounted to 100 lectures annually.

Initially he was teaching a class of thirty students, before it grew to 267 by 1921.

He announced in 1882 that the lectures would follow the structure of John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, and even when he introduced his own textbook Elements of Political Economy in 1905, he continued to follow the same framework.

Lecture notes taken by students in the 1880s indicate clearly the kind of economics Nicholson taught:

Once he had expounded theories of production, distribution and exchange, and paid particular attention to human capital, he would devote much of his time to free trade.

His excessive reverence for Smith was evident throughout his classes.

Unlike Mill, Nicholson was careful to teach demand and supply analysis with diagrams. In his inaugural lecture 'Political Economy as a Branch of Education' he had emphasised that the mathematical method gives precision to the subject.

When Marshall's Principles of Economics appeared in 1890, Nicholson was quick to include it in his reading list.

In an examination paper for 1898 a question typical of the period was 'State the general Law of Demand, explain, with examples, the meaning of Elasticity of Demand. Illustrate your answer with curves.'

From 1909 there were small group tutorials for the Political Economy Ordinary class, contradicting the widely held belief that Scottish Universities relied upon class lectures until the late twentieth century.

Economic history

Nicholson was passionate about economic history and he was eager to promote it across Scotland.

In 1884 he introduced a weekly lecture on the subject, using Cunningham's Growth of English Industry and Commerce as his text. Archibald Clark, Nicholson's assistant from 1899, became the first lecturer in economic history in 1901.

Two years later the History of Economic Thought, long to be a prominent aspect of Edinburgh economics, was included in the economic history course, before it later became a separate programme

Degree programme

The Faculty of Arts was reformed in 1892 through the introduction of a MA Ordinary degree, which consisted of seven courses.

Political Economy, with Conveyancing as an alternate, were included in this degree programme. In 1898 Economic Science became the seventh of the MA Honours degrees. In a sense it was a joint honours degree, as students were obliged to study moral philosophy or history as a supplementary subject.

Three honours papers were set. The combination of classical and neo-classical economics on the syllabus is clear in the course description for 1900:

  • Political Economy - Marshall's Principles of Economics, Vol. I; Keynes' Scope and Method of Political Economy; Nicholson's Principles of Political Economy. For Reference on Abstract Methods - Pantaleoni's Pure Economics.
  • Government and Finance - Smith's Wealth of Nations Book V; JS Mill's Political Economy Book V; Sidgwick's Political Economy Book III; Bastable's Public Finance. For Reference, Sidgwick's Elements of Politics chaps i-xiii, xviii, xix, xxviii, xxxi
  • Economic History - Cunningham's Growth of English Industry and Commerce; Seebohm's English Village Community chaps i-v. For reference - Rogers' Six Centuries of English Work and Wages; Ashley's Economic History

As a preparation for honours, a summer term course of twenty lectures based on Marshall's Principles was introduced in 1902.

Throughout the year honours and preparatory honours classes were held at 11 am, a convention which was followed until 1988. Examinations were swiftly taken with papers on a Friday from 9am-12pm, 2pm-5pm and Saturday 9am-12pm.

Statistics and maths

Statistical and mathematical courses appeared in the curriculum in 1910 and were taught by George Carse, a lecturer in Statistics and Mathematical Economics. During the summer term, students were encouraged to pursue honours half courses in Statistics and Mathematical Economics, as well as Economic Geography.

The statistics course covered the theory of correlation, while mathematical economics included an examination of the work of Cournot, Pareto, Edgeworth, Walras and Marshall.

Honours curriculum

The Economics honours curriculum introduced in 1910 was the framework for economics degrees until 1988:

  • Political Economy (general and set papers varying from time to time) 3 papers
  • Economic History (general and set subjects, varying) 3 papers
  • Political Science, 1 paper
  • One module

Students were obliged to study one module the following options:

  • Palaeography 1 paper
  • Mercantile Law (set subjects) 1 paper
  • Geography, Economic 1 paper
  • Statistics and Mathematical Economics 1 paper

Students were warned that questions could be set which required a working knowledge of French and German and a regulation that British History, a language and a science be taken as subjects before Honours