The Life of Oscar Douglas Skelton

by Marvin McInnis

O.D. Skelton was, along with Adam Shortt, the man who first brought Queen's to prominence in the field of economics. He was in many ways the most publically recognized and most influential of the collection of scholars who have become known as the "Queen's political economists". In 1908, Skelton was appointed to the Sir John A. MacDonald Chair of Political and Economic Science at Queen's. He had been selected as the replacement for Adam Shortt, the first holder of the chair, who was leaving Queen's to oversee the creation of a professional civil service in Ottawa. Skelton's appointment came only one year after his completion of doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. He was a second choice for the position, being offered it only after Queen's had been turned down by Edward (later Sir Edward) Peacock.

Skelton was an Ontarian, born 1878 at Orangeville. He completed his schooling in Cornwall, Ontario, where his father had moved to be the principal of a public school. He did his undergraduate studies at Queen's, but not in political economy. His fields were English and Classics, and he graduated as the medallist in Latin. He returned to Queen's for an additional year to further his studies of Greek. Skelton appears to have been completely unexposed to political economy at Queen's, as taught by Adam Shortt. Skelton moved on to the University of Chicago to pursue post-graduate studies in Classics.

Evidently, Skelton's interest in Classics waned, as after just one year he left Chicago and went to England in search of a career. It is interesting that in England he sat the Civil Service Examination but chose not to follow a career in the Indian Civil Service. Instead, he moved to Philadelphia and for a couple of years worked as an editor of a low profile magazine. In 1905, married and 27 years of age, he returned to the University of Chicago, this time to study for a doctorate in political economy. At Chicago, he studied under and was greatly impressed by Thorstein Veblen, one of the most original thinkers among American economists. Skelton's doctoral thesis was a tightly analytical study of socialism. A revised version of it, under the title of Socialism: A Critical Analysis, was published as a book in 1911 (after Skelton had been made full professor at Queen's). The book was widely acclaimed. As his dissertation, it had gained him the prestigious Hart, Schaffner and Marx prize (Marx the tailor, not Marx the philosopher). On the basis of this book, Skelton began his academic career with an international reputation.

In 1907, while finishing his dissertation, Skelton had returned to Queen's as a sessional lecturer. The following year he was made full professor. He turned out to be an influential and prodigious scholar. He managed a department that had a few assistants, he carried a heavy teaching load, and he published a lot. From his pen came a steady flow of articles and several books. His General Economic History of the Dominion, written to be a long chapter in the multi-volumed history Canada and its Provinces, was an incisive, and for the time remarkably quantitative, work that laid the foundation for almost all histories of Canadian economic development that appeared over the next 80 or 90 years. His publications were strongly economic, although they were frequently presented in the guise of biography. He wrote books on the railway builders, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and the Life and Times of Alexander Tilloch Galt. His articles dealt with topics that ranged from reciprocal trade with the United States to industrial relations and the rise of unions. It is interesting that while much of Skelton's published work concerns economics, his teaching at Queen's primarily involved political science. Skelton engaged assistant professors to teach the economics courses, notably W.W. Swanson, who went on to be the head of economics at the University of Saskatchewan, and Humphrey Michell, who later headed economics at McMaster.

Skelton played a dynamic and forceful role at Queen's, and in 1919 he became Dean of Arts. At about the same time, he was instrumental in starting up undergraduate education in commerce. It is interesting to note that Skelton's preference evidently would have been to introduce commerce as a graduate, professional program along Harvard lines. In 1924, Skelton was drawn away from Queen's to Ottawa to be the first Undersecretary of State for External Affairs. The tasks he undertook there were to articulate a distinctively Canadian foreign policy and to establish a professional foreign service. On the latter, he did so well that for many years Canada was thought internationally to have an exceptionally able foreign service. For at least three decades after Skelton's arrival in Ottawa the foreign service attracted the cream of Canada's university graduates. Besides a foreign service of outstanding quality, and a remarkable body of published scholarship, Skelton's other legacy to the country was to educate and inspire another generation of Queen's students who went on to notable accomplishments. These included W. Clifford Clark, Bryce Stewart, and W. A. Mackintosh. In 1928, several prominent trustees and alumni plumped hard to have Skelton return to Queen's as principal. Alas, it was not to be.