Edgeworth, Francis Ysidro

(1845-1926), economist and statistician

by Peter Newman

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Edgeworth, Francis Ysidro (1845-1926), economist and statistician, was born on 8 February 1845 at Edgeworthstown in co. Longford, the fifth and last son of Francis Beaufort Edgeworth (1809-1846), and his wife, Rosa Florentina (1815-1864), daughter of General Antonio Eroles, an exile from the absolutist Spain of Ferdinand VII. Reflecting this Spanish inheritance, an elder brother was baptized Antonio Eroles and Edgeworth himself Ysidro Francis, a form that he used sometimes even as an adult. Alfred Marshall, considering the amalgam of friendliness and reserve in Edgeworth's character, used to say that 'Francis is a charming fellow, but you must be careful with Ysidro' (Keynes, 152).

The educationist Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) was Francis Ysidro Edgeworth's grandfather, the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) his aunt--remembered by him as a 'very plain old lady with a delightful face' (Butler and Butler, 244)--and the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) his cousin. R. L. Edgeworth's eldest child Richard ran away to sea and then to South Carolina, where he had three sons and died, disinherited, long before his father. Death and infertility so drastically reduced the number of the other male heirs that when Antonio died in 1911 his brother Francis Ysidro, fifth son of a sixth son and the youngest grandson, inherited the Edgeworthstown estate. Francis Ysidro's death from pneumonia in Oxford on 13 February 1926 thus brought to an end (at least outside America) the male line begun so energetically by his grandfather, whose twenty-two children by four wives over forty-eight years included seven sons who survived infancy.

Edgeworth's father had an unremarkable career, its last years spent administering the estate. Edgeworth himself, only twenty months old when his father died, was brought up at home and educated there by tutors. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1862 and read classics with considerable success, but without taking a degree transferred to Oxford in 1867, originally to Magdalen Hall and then to Balliol, where in 1869 he obtained a first class in literae humaniores. Thereafter he moved to London, where he lived in two small rented rooms at 5 Mount Vernon, Hampstead, and studied law and mathematics. Specializing in commercial law, he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1877 but never practised. The direction of Edgeworth's informal but serious mathematical studies was perhaps affected by the example of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who had known him (as Frank) and had also been a great friend of his father.

Almost certainly those early London years were financed by subventions from home, which allowed him, in 1871, to join the recently founded Savile Club; a year later Antonio also joined. An honorary secretary of the club from 1878 to 1881, Edgeworth obviously enjoyed and profited from its friendly intellectual atmosphere. His fellow members Henry Sidgwick and the psychologist James Sully were strong influences on his first book, New and Old Methods of Ethics, published at his own expense in 1877 and never reprinted. Its chief aim was to reformulate Sidgwick's utilitarian ethics in the light of Fechnerian psychophysics and the calculus of variations, of which Edgeworth 'already showed a confident and creative mastery' (Stigler, 'Francis Ysidro Edgeworth', 290). The resulting 'exact utilitarianism' is in many ways superior to the version that appeared later in Mind (1879), though the latter is the source for most critical discussion of Edgeworth's utilitarianism. The literary style of the book is extraordinary, faithfully reflecting its author's character: 'his courtesy, his caution, his shrewdness, his wit, his subtlety, his learning, his reserve--all are there full-grown' (Keynes, 145).

Edgeworth belonged to the Sunday Tramps, an informal group organized in 1879 by Leslie Stephen (another member of the Savile), whose purpose was to spend each Sunday striding briskly up and down the home counties (Maitland, 357-61, 500; Sully, 302-11) . Physically strong, and active well into his seventies, Edgeworth also liked to climb, cycle, golf, sail, and swim in icy water. To judge from photographs his physical appearance owed more to Spain than to Ireland. Indeed, suitably attired, he could well have been a nobleman in a canvas by El Greco, though the usual look of veneration might have been missing; 'Music appealed to him little, and the Church not much more' (Bonar, 653). Apparently it was aversion to risk rather than to women that led him to remain single. Before her marriage Beatrice Potter (Webb) was 'halfheartedly courted by a middle-aged economist named Edgeworth' (MacKenzie and MacKenzie, 134), and his writings throughout a long life betray a tendresse for that formidable woman.

In 1879 Edgeworth became in effect an apprentice in economic theory to his friend and neighbour William Stanley Jevons. Starting from scratch, he learned economics so well and so fast that in 1881 he published his masterpiece Mathematical Psychics. Although its reviewers Jevons and Marshall praised the book, neither showed any understanding of the profound 'economical calculus' that is its heart, a positive analysis of exchange in both market and non-market settings. In the latter, the possibility of coalitions between the various parties to the exchange poses severe and quite novel analytical difficulties, but even so Edgeworth was able to reach deep and highly non-intuitive theorems about relations between non-market and market exchange.

The general incomprehension of what Mathematical Psychics is all about continued for eighty years, owing in part to the mistaken belief that, because the normative analysis of its 'hedonical calculus' (reprinted from Mind, 1879) is so nakedly and unacceptably utilitarian, the positive analysis of its 'economical calculus' must also depend critically on the same fragile assumptions of cardinal measurability and interpersonal comparability of utility. It was not until the coming of game theory, whose concept of 'core' corresponds to the 'final settlements' of the economical calculus, that Edgeworth's supreme originality was fully recognized (in the work of M. Shubik and H. Scarf; there is analogy here to Hamiltonian dynamics, which also had to wait eighty years until the advent of quantum mechanics brought full understanding).

Its difficult mathematics and its ornamented style also help to explain why Mathematical Psychics was misjudged for so long. A few readers were enchanted by 'the strange but charming amalgam of poetry and pedantry, science and art, wit and learning of which he had the secret' (Keynes, 146), but more of them were bewildered and some (the more literal-minded) enraged. This did not prevent economists from borrowing, for their own purposes, much of the theoretical machinery devised especially for the economical calculus. Such standard tools as general utility functions, indifference curves, offer curves, and contract curves all originated there, as did the essential assumption that preferences be convex. Moreover, Edgeworth's definition of settlement fully anticipated the eponymous invention, some twenty years later, of the famous concept of Pareto optimum.

For whatever reasons (and one can think of several), soon after Mathematical Psychics appeared Edgeworth changed course completely, and in 1883 began the series of papers that were to make him 'the leading theorist of mathematical statistics of the latter half of the 19th century' (Stigler, 'Edgeworth as statistician', 98). He set himself

to do at last what had been talked about and assumed possible for over a century, but had never been accomplished: adapt the statistical methods of the theory of errors to the quantification of uncertainty in the social, particularly economic, sciences. (Stigler, 'Francis Ysidro Edgeworth', 295)
In this he succeeded brilliantly, but, as with his economics, his achievements were consistently underrated for many years. Only after 1975 did sympathetic criticism by Stephen Stigler and others lead to proper evaluation of Edgeworth's contributions, which culminated in 1996 in three large volumes (ed. C. R. McCann) which reprint nearly all his papers on statistics and probability.

From 1883 to 1888 all of Edgeworth's originality was directed to statistical theory and its applications to such topics as banking and index numbers, but in those years he also took the time to expand greatly his reading in economics, especially in classical and contemporary economic theory. His flood of publications and swiftly growing reputation lifted him in 1888 from the margins of academic life to a professorship in political economy at King's College, London, then in 1890 to its Tooke chair. In early 1891 he was appointed Drummond professor of political economy at Oxford, tenable at All Souls, and he continued thus--though with singularly little success as a teacher--until becoming emeritus in 1922. Spartan rooms in that college, and the same bare pied-à-terre at Hampstead, were his homes for the rest of his life.

Edgeworth received several academic honours: he was twice president of section F of the British Association (1889, 1922), president of the Royal Statistical Society (1912), and fellow of the British Academy, and was made an honorary DCL by the University of Durham. His most conspicuous honour was his editorship of the Economic Journal. He became its first editor in 1890 and served until 1911, and resigned to become chairman of the editorial board when J. M. Keynes became editor. Keynes being busy at Versailles, in 1919 Edgeworth came back to serve alongside him as joint editor of the journal for the next seven years; 'his fellow-editor received a final letter from him about its business after the news of his death' (Keynes, 140).

Edgeworth was a prolific writer. In the absence of a definitive bibliography, a preliminary count, treating his several multipart papers as separate items, yields a total of more than 500 books, articles, essays, and book reviews. He wrote only four books (at 150 pages Mathematical Psychics is much the longest) but over 200 book reviews. After 1890 even his articles on economic theory (as distinct from statistics) tended to take review form, being extended commentaries on the work of his contemporaries around the world. 'There was no other economist, of his period, who read so much of what was appearing, in many countries and in many languages' (Hicks, 164). Often, as in his major papers on distribution, international trade, monopoly, returns to scale, and taxation, his analysis was brilliant, original, penetrating, subtle, and instructive; but it remained commentary none the less. At the invitation of the Royal Economic Society, in 1925 he gathered many of these economic articles and reviews together, in some cases with editorial amendments, in his three-volume Papers Relating to Political Economy.

Edgeworth has always been regarded as an exceptionally distinguished 'all-rounder', making major contributions to both economic and statistical theory to a degree that no one else, with the possible exception of Harold Hotelling, has ever approached. Since 1960, however, serious reappraisal of the depth and subtlety of those contributions to each discipline has shown decisively that he was indeed one of the truly great economists of his time, and one of its greatest statisticians.


J. M. Keynes, 'Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, 1845-1926', Economic Journal, 36 (1926), 140-53
P. Newman, 'Edgeworth, Francis Ysidro', The new Palgrave: a dictionary of economics, ed. J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, and P. Newman (1987)
S. Stigler, 'Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, statistician', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: series A, 141 (1978), 287-322
S. Stigler, 'Edgeworth as statistician', The new Palgrave: a dictionary of economics, ed. J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, and P. Newman (1987)
M. Shubik, 'Edgeworth market games', Contributions to the Theory of Games, ed. A. W. Tucker and R. D. Luce, 4 (1959), 267-78
H. Scarf, 'An analysis of markets with a large number of participants', Recent advances in game theory [Princeton, NJ 1961] (1962), 127-55
H. J. Butler and H. E. Butler, The 'Black book of Edgeworthstown' and other Edgeworth memories, 1585-1817 (1927)
J. Bonar, 'Memories of F. Y. Edgeworth', Economic Journal, 36 (1926), 647-53
N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, The Fabians (1977)
S. M. Stigler, The history of statistics (1986)
J. R. Hicks, 'Francis Ysidro Edgeworth', Economists and the Irish economy, ed. A. E. Murphy (1984), 157-74
F. W. Maitland, The life and letters of Leslie Stephen (1906)
J. Sully, My life and friends: a psychologist's memories [1918]
The Savile Club, 1868-1923 (1923)

BLPES, corresp. and papers relating to Royal Economic Society
priv. coll., personal MSS, photographs etc. |  BLPES, letters to Edwin Cannan
BLPES, corresp. with Alfred Marshall
Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, letters to Edwin Seligman
King's AC Cam., letters to John Maynard Keynes
UCL, letters to Sir Francis Galton
UCL, corresp. with Karl Pearson
University of Toronto, letters to James Mavor

photograph, 1892, All Souls Oxf.
Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1906, repro. in Bonar, 'Memories of F. Y. Edgeworth'
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  
£8609 2s. 1d.: resworn probate, 10 April 1926, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
£1374 15s. 5d.: probate, 20 Oct 1926, CGPLA éire

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)