Born: 9 August, 1930, in Dundee. Died: 21 May, 2015, in Vancouver, aged 84
Professor Ian Ross was for many years a distinguished academic at British Columbia University but is best known in Scotland as the author of the definitive biography of Adam Smith, published in 1995. Smith, – “Scotland’s father of modern economics” – was born in Kirkcaldy and wrote The Wealth of Nations, which is now considered the fundamental work on economics.
Ross’s biography was immediately hailed as bringing fresh insight to this mighty figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. It was the first full-scale biography of Adam Smith for 100 years and Ross placed the economist into a broad historical significance by examining his background, education and intellectual circle.
The latter included David Hume, whose correspondence with Smith Ross explored at length.
It was indeed a scrupulously researched and scholarly biography, rightly winning worldwide acclaim. In a lengthy review, The Economist wrote: “Ross’s achievement in this biography is to have revealed the intellectual sources for his work while reminding us of the practicality, modesty, generosity and essential kindness of this great man.”
Ian Simpson Ross’s father worked in the jute industry in Dundee. Conditions were hard in the city in the era prior to the Second World War and his mother was in service.
An early memory for Ross was the many dole queues around Dundee. He attended Blackness Primary and won a scholarship to Harris Academy. He became a voracious reader and a keen student of Scottish history and literature. In 1950 Ross won a scholarship to read English literature – specialising in Elizabethan writings – at St Andrews University and gained a first-class honours degree. His fascination with that period was furthered when he carried out research on the period at Merton College, Oxford.
He also explored the poetry written by the Scottish poets at the court of James V1 and 1. Ross was appointed Instructor at British Columbia University, where he rose to become head of the English department in 1982 and appointed Professor Emeritus of English in 1993.
Ross won a Fulbright Scholarship and wrote his PhD at Texas University on the leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, notably Adam Smith and David Hume. He built a considerable reputation as an enlightened lecturer and concentrated on writing the biography of Adam Smith. A second edition was published in 2010.
Other publications by Ross drew on his love of Scottish writings and its heritage. They included a biography on William Dunbar, the 15th-century makar poet, and Lord Kames, a leading figure in the Enlightenment who was a founder member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. In 2008 in Studies In Scottish Literature Ross wrote an authoritative article on Dr Johnson’s Highland tour of 1773.
Ross often returned to Scotland – partly to carry out academic research but also to spend time with friends and revisit old haunts. His final visit to Scotland was with his wife Ingrid last year. They travelled from Canada for the Scottish independence referendum and, as enthusiastic supporters of the Yes side, left a touch disappointed.
In 2013 Ross donated a beautiful five-volume copy of the first edition of The Works of Adam Smith to the Panmure House Project, which is helping to restore Panmure House in Edinburgh where Smith lived.
The essays were written, along with articles in the Edinburgh Review, by Smith for intellectual discussion but never published. The 1811 edition, which is of enormous importance to scholars, includes texts of the third edition (1784) of The Wealth of Nations. Smith had lived in Panmure House when he was employed as the city’s Commissioner of Customs and Excise. Ross wrote that he “entertained figures of the Scottish Enlightenment on Sundays in the spacious rooms”. More recent owners of Panmure House included The Scotsman and the Canongate Boys Club.
There is little doubt, amongst all his many academic achievements, that Ross will be remembered for his academic insight and research on the life of Adam Smith. The author and Smith authority, Gavin Kennedy, has written of that biography: “Ian was the doyen among Adam Smith’s modern scholarly biographers. His biography will never be surpassed.”
Ross was a brilliant, yet quietly modest, man of letters. He was a man of much humanity and charm who combined a wide academic knowledge with a delight and great personal sincerity. He is survived by his wife Ingrid and their five children.