Obituary: Professor Brinley Thomas
Thursday 08 September 1994
BRINLEY THOMAS was one of the world's leading authorities on the international migration of population and capital.
In his principal work, Migration and Economic Growth: a study of Great Britain and the Atlantic economy (1954) he challenged the conventional view among American economists that periodic inflows of immigrants and capital to the United States were caused unilaterally by swings in American aggregate demand. Using a technique closely related to the new economic history in the US, he demonstrated that long cycles in North America in the pre-1913 era were inverse to British cycles and that this relationship could be explained by demographic factors and the monetary implications of the international gold standard.
Born in the small Welsh mining village of Pontrhydyfen in 1906, Brinley Thomas was educated at Port Talbot County School and the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he obtained a First Class honours degree in Economics in 1926, and, two years later, an MA with distinction. From 1931 to 1939 he was a lecturer in the London School of Economics. The award of an Acland travelling scholarship enabled him to spend 18 months in Germany and Sweden between 1932 and 1934. With characteristic thoroughness he mastered the languages of both countries. His knowledge of Swedish enabled him to study at first hand the ideas of the Swedish school of economists, and it was Thomas who brought the ideas of Knut Wicksell and Gustav Cassel to the attention of the English speaking world, notably through his first book, Monetary Policy and Crises: a study of Swedish experience (1936).
His linguistic competence became an extremely valuable asset when war broke out in 1939, and in 1942 he was appointed Director of the Northern Section, Political Intelligence Department, at the Foreign Office, where he was involved in the transmission of coded messages to Allied agents in northern Europe.
At the end of the war, he returned briefly to the LSE before being appointed to the chair of Economics at University College Cardiff in 1946, where he remained until 1973. Not only did economics flourish in Cardiff under his leadership, but his department spawned a number of cognate departments including Law, Accountancy, Sociology and Politics. Following his 'retirement' in 1973, he was appointed visiting professor in a number of North American universities, and was still conducting postgraduate classes in the School of Demography at the University of Berkeley in his mid-eighties. He published his last book, The Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic Economy: selected essays (1993) at the age of 87.
Despite his love of travel and his long sojourns in North America, Brinley Thomas was above all else a Welshman. A fluent Welsh-speaker, he was a lifelong friend of the Welsh poet Waldo Williams, who composed an englyn in his honour. Throughout his life he maintained an active interest in Welsh affairs. In an article entitled 'Wales and the Atlantic Economy', published in 1959, he advanced the thesis that the industrial revolution had been a blessing to the Welsh language, a doctrine which departed abruptly from the orthodox view enshrined in Welsh history textbooks. In 1962, he edited a work on the Welsh economy, and from 1968 to 1971 he was Chairman of the Council for Wales, a high-profile committee set up by the Government to give advice on Welsh issues. He was also an active member of many UK and international committees. He was appointed OBE in 1955 and advanced CBE in 1973.
Brinley Thomas was a distinguished scholar whose work was the product of assiduous study, a fertile intuition and meticulous attention to detail. He had a marvellous gift for words which made his lectures immensely entertaining. He could become impatient and short-tempered when things were not going well, and revelled in the internal wranglings which have always been part of the life of senior common rooms. However, he bore few lasting grudges, and was a sensitive person who inspired and befriended successive generations of students over a span of 60 years.
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