Professor Alexander Youngson

Economic historian at Edinburgh, Canberra and Hong Kong
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The Independent Online

The economic historian Alexander Youngson had all the qualities that make for a first-rate academic. His teaching, his published research and his administrative capabilities, together with a willingness to help colleagues, however junior, bore the hallmark of excellence. Above all, he was clear-sighted, and had sound judgement and great strength of purpose.



Alexander John Brown (Alexander Youngson), economic historian: born Sialkot, India 28 September 1918; Lecturer, St Andrews University 1948-50; Lecturer, Cambridge University 1950-58; Fellow, Emmanuel College, Cambridge 1950-58; Professor of Political Economy, Edinburgh University 1963-74, Vice-Principal 1971-74; Director, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University 1974-80, Emeritus Professor 1980-2004; Professor of Economics, University of Hong Kong 1980-82; Chairman, Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland 1983-90; CBE 1987; married 1948 Elspeth Naylor (one son, one daughter); died York 6 April 2004.



The economic historian Alexander Youngson had all the qualities that make for a first-rate academic. His teaching, his published research and his administrative capabilities, together with a willingness to help colleagues, however junior, bore the hallmark of excellence. Above all, he was clear-sighted, and had sound judgement and great strength of purpose.

Born in 1918 in Sialkot in India (now Pakistan), the son of a missionary doctor, Alexander Brown, and his wife Helen Youngson (whose surname he later used to avoid confusion with another economist called A.J. Brown), he grew up and was educated in Aberdeen, at the Grammar School and Aberdeen University, graduating MA in 1947. During the Second World War, he served in the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot. In later years, he spoke little of this experience, although I recall his saying that flying a Fairey Barracuda "had its moments".

On a Commonwealth Fund (later renamed Harkness) Fellowship he spent a year at the University of California, Berkeley. Returning to Scotland in 1948 he married Elizabeth Naylor and for the next two years lectured in Economic History at St Andrews University. My wife attended his course and to this day remembers it as a "breath of fresh scholarly air". In 1950 the Youngsons moved to Cambridge, where as University Lecturer and Fellow of Emmanuel College he continued to inspire students of Economic History and Economics.

He found himself not at all in sympathy with the doctrinaire views of many other leading lights in Cambridge's Faculty of Economics and his appointment in 1958 to the Chair of Economic History at Edinburgh University must have seemed opportune. There was however much to do in building almost from nothing what became under him and his successor a centre of excellence.

By 1962 the Chair of Political Economy (founded in 1870 by the Merchant Company of Edinburgh) had fallen vacant on (Sir) Alan Peacock's departure to help found the new University of York. Edinburgh University authorities had not been as responsive to the growing needs of an economics department as Peacock had been urging. Sandy Youngson was persuaded to take on the burden but with the promise that a second chair in the Economics Department would shortly be established. Over the next 10 years, the Economics Department grew and flourished; by 1970 there were no fewer than four professors.

In 1974, having been Vice-Principal at Edinburgh for three years, he moved out to Canberra as Director of Research in Social Sciences at the Australian National University. From 1980 to 1982, he held a professorial appointment in Hong Kong before returning to Edinburgh. From 1983 until 1990 he chaired the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland.

Youngson's publications ranged over many fields, economic history, economics, architecture and Scottish history among them. The American Economy 1860-1940 came in 1951, Possibilities of Economic Progress in 1959 and The British Economy 1920-1957 in 1960. Overhead Capital: a study in development economics (1967) sprang from a period of leave spent as Irving Fisher Visiting Professor at Yale. Other books, notably The Making of Classical Edinburgh (1967), celebrating the 200th anniversary of Edinburgh's New Town, were mainly historical studies.

Ian G. Stewart

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