Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1723.1 His father, also named Adam Smith, an Edinburgh lawyer and later comptroller of customs at Kirkcaldy, died shortly before his son was born, and young Adam was brought up by his mother Margaret Douglas (d. 1784), to whom he remained devoted and with whom he lived for much the greater part of his life.
Smith learned Latin at his school in Kirkcaldy and then at the age of fourteen went up to Glasgow University, where his subjects were Latin, Greek, mathematics, science and philosophy. Thereafter he remembered with affection his Glasgow teacher, the ‘never to be forgotten Dr Hutcheson’, and also spoke very respectfully of another Glasgow professor, the mathematician Robert Simson. Writing of Simpson and of the Edinburgh mathematician Matthew Stewart (father of the philosopher Dugald Stewart), he affirmed that they were ‘the two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to’ and added that they were ‘the two greatest [mathematicians] that have lived in my time’.2 These references are important as indicating Smith’s early and lasting interest in science including the mathematical sciences. He was not a practising scientist and made no significant contribution to mathematics, physics or the other natural sciences, but he wrote with real sophistication about the philosophical dimension of the great scientific enterprise of western Europe.
After three years at Glasgow he won an exhibition (a scholarship) to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read widely in science, particularly physics and astronomy, as well as in moral philosophy and metaphysics, particularly the classical authors and philosophers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and France. He was not complimentary about the education then available at Oxford, but he derived immense educational benefit from his six years there in view of his self-imposed programme of study. It was almost certainly