Historians have sometimes had a tense intellectual relationship with social scientists, since the rise of those disciplines was often pitched as an attempt to improve upon a ‘merely’ historical mode of explanation. Recently historians have begun to turn the tables by writing the history of the social sciences, a burgeoning field that situates the universalist aspirations of social-scientific pioneers in their original time and place. In the case of Britain, where a particular tradition of empirical social investigation has long been entangled with liberal-left politics, scholars have followed in the footsteps of the historically minded sociologist Mike Savage, whose Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940 (2010) encouraged them to look afresh at how post-war British sociology interpreted the huge amount of evidence it had accumulated about class, gender and, increasingly, race. Much of this work has concentrated on revising recent social history by drawing on that source base, in the process calling into question the conclusions the sociologists had made from their studies of, say, working-class life. But as Lise Butler has recently observed in Michael Young, Social Science and the British Left (2020), political history can also be revitalized by examining the relationship between social science and the state. The mid-twentieth century was a crucial period of state expansion in Britain, as elsewhere, reflecting a new confidence in the capacity of expertise to manage economic growth and social risks.

John Stewart’s comprehensive new biography of Richard Titmuss gives us an excellent platform from which to view the politics of expertise in this period. Author of a vast oeuvre, including Problems of Social Policy, Commitment to Welfare, The Irresponsible Society and The Gift Relationship, from his berth at the London School of Economics, Titmuss pioneered the academic study of the welfare state—although he disliked the widespread use of the term itself—while acting as both a prominent public advocate for a more egalitarian social policy and an influential advisor to the Labour Party, in opposition and in government.

Of course, a lot has already been written about Titmuss. In addition to the hefty social-policy literature inspired by his work, the leading feminist social scientist Ann Oakley has until now commanded the biographical field. As Titmuss’s daughter, Oakley was able to write with authority and insight about both his personal and his professional life. In two oustanding volumes, Man and Wife (1996) and Father and Daughter (2014), Oakley explored his relationships with his wife, Kay, and with their independent-minded daughter, highlighting the extent to which his public success rested on a highly gendered distribution of domestic and emotional labour. Kay Titmuss, a social worker with the unemployed at the time of her marriage, put aside her own career to support her husband’s. Oakley also demythologized the received account of his early life (propagated above all by Kay Titmuss herself) which stressed his humble social origins. As Oakley documented, Titmuss was born in 1907 into a relatively stable middle-class family who farmed in Bedfordshire and was sent to a private preparatory school. The farm failed with the end of protective tariffs after the First World War, and the family moved to the London suburb of Hendon when Titmuss was fifteen. He was enrolled in an accountancy course while his father set up a haulage business, before dying suddenly in 1926. The 19-year-old insurance clerk became the family’s bread-winner, energetically pursuing a broad range of political and intellectual interests in his spare time.

Oakley’s studies were pioneering feminist analyses of the intersection of the personal and the political, but they were never intended to be full biographies that took an overall measure of Titmuss’s life and career. Stewart’s book, in contrast, was commissioned by his subject’s former employer, the lse, specifically by its Department of Health Policy, as part of a series on ‘lse Pioneers of Social Policy’ (a biography of Titmuss’s friend and colleague Brian Abel-Smith by Sally Sheard, The Passionate Economist, appeared in this series in 2013). Drawing on the full range of available source material, notably Titmuss’s own personal papers and interviews with his former colleagues and students, it is the first full historical biography of Titmuss. A distinguished historian of social policy at Glasgow Caledonian University, Stewart brings his expertise to bear in depicting Titmuss’s influential role in both the study and practice of social welfare. As well as generating new insights into the well-known milestones of Titmuss’s life, Stewart brings to light sides of his career that have hitherto been almost entirely ignored.

Stewart makes clear at the outset that he has decided to steer his biography away from the aspects of Titmuss’s personal life that Oakley had already explored. This is largely, and properly, a decision made on the basis of Stewart’s own intellectual interests in the history of social policy and his sense that he does not have much to add to what Oakley has already written (it is clear from the acknowledgements that Stewart and Oakley were friendly interlocutors throughout the writing of the biography, and he draws on Oakley’s findings in his reconstruction of Titmuss’s early life). But there are also, here and there in the book, hints that his preference is to contextualize Titmuss’s personal life as typical of a man of his generation and to nuance Oakley’s account of her parents by stressing the more companionate aspects of their marriage. The result is a judicious but ultimately sympathetic portrait of Titmuss as a public figure, providing a panoramic account of a remarkable career. Stewart is scrupulous in setting out different perspectives on his subject’s work, some of them quite critical, but the overall effect is to highlight the magnitude of Titmuss’s achievements. As he demonstrates, Titmuss was adept at navigating the tensions between the different roles he performed—the academic, the social critic, the party consigliere. But it is clear from Stewart’s account that at times the balancing act was hard to pull off. Titmuss’s career was indeed a remarkable one, yet it also illustrates the fragile basis on which his type of expertise was grounded. A more sombre conclusion can be drawn from the evidence that Stewart amasses.

In an almost surreal contrast with the contemporary academic labour market, Titmuss was famously appointed as the Professor of Social Administration at the lse in 1950 without having earned a doctorate or held any previous academic appointment. This was of course much less remarkable then than it would be now. As Stewart shows, Titmuss had in any case paid at least some of his dues as a freelance social investigator in the 1930s and 1940s, penning influential work on population policy while holding down his day job at the County Fire Office insurance company. From his mid-twenties, Titmuss was both an active member of the Liberal Party and an enthusiastic participant in the Eugenics Society. This is less of a paradox than it might appear, since at this time many on the liberal left were keen proponents of policies designed to improve the ‘fitness’ of the population.

A key development within the Eugenics Society in the interwar years was the rise of a revisionist position—supported by Titmuss—which argued that environmental factors were just as important as hereditary ones in determining the ‘quality’ of a given population. In other words, this form of eugenics supported economically egalitarian public policy on the grounds that, without a broadly equal social starting point, it would be impossible to ascertain the extent to which differences between individuals reflected innate qualities or merely the operation of social privilege. Indeed, for Titmuss it was an open question whether it was possible to understand differences in ability between individuals as caused by anything but social disadvantage, until class inequality had first been eliminated. Titmuss’s views on these questions evolved over the course of his life, but this was the starting point for his later use of biological metaphors to characterize social solidarity and his rigorous employment of statistical evidence to detail the unequal distribution of social advantage. Stewart points out that the Eugenics Society also offered important networking opportunities to Titmuss. Through it he got to know many leading figures in British social science, notably Alexander Carr-Saunders, the Director of the lse, who would later play a key role in his appointment as Professor of Social Administration.