Adam Smith’s life, work and legacy at the Adam Smith Business School

Adam Smith is known as the founder of modern economics. He is the University of Glasgow’s most famous alumn and one of its first world changers.

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife. His father, a customs officer, died before he was born and Smith was raised by his mother. 

He came to the University of Glasgow in 1737 at the age of 14 and studied under the famous philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Smith was a gifted student and won a scholarship to continue his studies at Oxford (1740-46).  

Returning to Scotland, Smith became a teacher in Edinburgh, where he gave popular classes on philosophy and literature. He joined the clubs and societies of the Scottish Enlightenment along with friends like the philosopher David Hume.  

The Scottish Enlightenment believed that science, learning and education would help banish superstition, ignorance and bigotry. They believed that the light of learning would improve society and help us lead happier and more fulfilled lives. 

Smith teaching

University of Glasgow, 1751-1764

  • The success of these classes led to his appointment as Professor of Logic and then Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow where he taught from 1751-1764. Smith saw first-hand the rapid economic development taking place in Glasgow at this time and became fascinated by economic and social change. 
  • At Glasgow, Smith was a popular lecturer, teaching classes in philosophy, politics, law, and literature. At this time, he wrote the book that established his reputation: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  

Theory of Moral Sentiments

First published in 1759

  • Smith’s first major published major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was heavily influenced by the lectures he gave at the University. It was first published in 1759.
  • In it Smith lays out the wider context on which The Wealth of Nations rests. Smith argued that economic behaviour does not exist within a vacuum and is heavily influenced by social and moral norms.  
  • As many Enlightenment scholars before him, Smith sought to identify the source of our ability to form moral judgements. To put it simply, how we decide what is right, and what is wrong. Smith traced this to our sentiments and argued morality was influenced by the social nature of humans, namely our need for approval and desire for social cohesion.
  • We wish to be viewed as morally responsible, so we behave in a socially acceptable way. Through experience we develop an understanding of what works and does not work, what people approve of and do not approve of. 

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

wealth of nations

The birth of economics

  • In 1776, Smith published the first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The work sought to explore, through historical and contemporary examples, what made or caused nations to be wealthy. Much of this discussion investigated the influence of commerce upon contemporary society, for better and for worse.
  • His enquiry was both analytical study and a historical narrative, an approach which was innovative for the time. So innovative in fact that Smith is credited with giving rise to a new scientific discipline - economics. Smith found order in the chaotic and unpredictable market, identifying key principles or set patterns of behaviours that governed trade and influenced the wealth of nations. 
  • Social behaviour and morality continue to be central themes, as introduced in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith argued that the wealth of a nation was directly related to the well-being of its citizens. 

The Wealth of Nations

Later life and legacy

Adam Smith and his continued relevancy


  • The Wealth of Nations made Smith famous and wealthy. He spent his retirement serving as a commissioner of customs in Edinburgh. Smith died in 1790 and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard near his home in Edinburgh. 
  • Adam Smith’s ideas changed the way we think about the world and are as relevant today as they were 300 years ago. 


  • Adam Smith remembered his time at the University of Glasgow as:

'By far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life.'

  • We want students and academics to feel inspired and motivated by Smith’s legacy and seek out opportunities to positively impact the way we work, think and exist in society today.'

Adam Smith and his continued relevancy

Who was Adam Smith?

Professor Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment, presents a look at the life of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher who is the University of Glasgow's most famous former student and regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern economics.

Professor Sayantan Ghosal

Professor Sayantan Ghosal, Adam Smith Chair in Political Economy, discusses the legacy of Adam Smith and makes the link between Smith’s work and his own.

Professor Kat Riach

Professor in Organisational Studies, Kathleen Riach, talks about Smith’s work and her research.

Adam Smith's living legacy continues within our culture and community

The Invisible Handshake: A Free Market Simulation Game

This video explores "The Invisible Handshake," a free market simulation game designed by students Prajjwal and Jan. It delves into a session of the Games-Based Learning Lab, where educators gained insights into utilising Business Simulation Games (BSGs) to enhance the learning experience.

Daron Acemoglu on Adam Smith and Honorary Docotorate

Professor Daron Acemoglu, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of economics. He also delivered delivered a captivating lecture as part of our prestigious Adam Smith Distinguished Speaker Series.

Adam Smith 300 Year Anniversary

Adam Smith Tercentenary - 2023 highlights

This video showcases the diverse range of activities, events, and lectures that explored the legacy of Adam Smith as a scholar, educator, and citizen during the University of Glasgow's Adam Smith tercentenary celebrations.

Tercentenary tartan launched on Tartan Day to honour pioneering Scot Adam Smith

To honour the tercentenary of pioneering economist and Scot Adam Smith, a new tartan has been designed by the University of Glasgow Adam Smith Business School.  

Adam Smith Tartan - The Design

Adam Smith Business School's graphic designer, James Murray, designed a new tartan to commemorate Adam Smith's tercentenary. The tartan, now recognised in the Scottish Register of Tartans, is woven into a warm brushed lambswool scarf produced in Selkirk, Scotland.