Westville’s war hero economist


Published on August 24, 2014

James Maxwell is pictured talking to some of his students at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. A native of Westville, he became one of the most sought after economists and public policy advisers in the international market during the First World War.


A Westville native son became one of the most sought after economists and public policy advisers in the international market during some very turbulent times in our world. Many governments of all levels have benefited over these many years and are still applying his financial principles from his published books, articles, papers and lectures.

James Ackley Maxwell was born to parents William and Anna (Marshall) Maxwell on March 7, 1897. James’s early life began on Drummond Road in Westville, a stone’s throw from the Intercolonial Coal Mine, where his father worked as the general manager. Young James would have learned the importance of sound financial dealings and astute business skill from his father. The senior Maxwell was a shrewd and sometimes controversial general manager, “he learned from practical experience in the pits” and applied them in running the operations. During the glory days of local coal mining, William Maxwell became the first Canadian-born senior executive to run a Pictou County colliery. These fatherly examples would defiantly help a young son in what was about to unfold in his coming years.

The horrors of war would challenge James A. Maxwell’s teenage life. In 1915, the 18-year-old Westville bank clerk signed up for the Great War. He was assigned to the 85th Infantry Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders. This contingent of soldiers would see some of the worst carnage in World War One. A young James A. Maxwell would earn great distinction while in battle. He moved up the ranks very quickly and became a Lieutenant at the age of 21. Officer Maxwell would also earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal for an “extremely high act of bravery” at the Battle of Amiens. The commanding officers dispatch read; “James A. Maxwell during the whole operation, carried himself in a magnificent, soldierly manner and displayed the greatest devotion to duty and wonderful personal during which inspired with confidence all with whom he came in contact. He went from section to section as they held up by his skill and coolness cleared the opposition and made advance of the company possible. When the objective was reached he made an invaluable reconnaissance under heavy machine gun fire, locating various units and directing them to position in the consolidation.”

James A. Maxwell would carry on these levelheaded leadership qualities throughout his entire life. After World War One he enrolled at Dalhousie University and graduated with honours in history, philosophy and economics. In 1921, James was accepted at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he excelled at economics and graduated with a PHD in 1927. James Maxwell was hired immediately by Clark University of Worcester, Mass., where he would spend the next 43 years teaching economics. He held several posts at this prestigious campus and in 1964, Dr. Maxwell was chosen “Clark Man of the Year” and awarded an honorary “doctorate of humane letters,” and also titled “Emeritus Professor of Economics at Clarke University.”

The many years of consulting, advising and writing in the international community garnered Dr. James Maxwell much praise and economic stardom. He specialized in “Public Finance and Fiscal Policy.” In 1935 he served as adviser to the Royal Commission on Provincial Financial Relations in Ottawa. He was appointed to serve on the United States Office of Price Administration and the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. Dr. Maxwell was also asked to prepare a study of “Federal Grants and Business Cycles” for the National Bureau of Economic Research and the President of United States Council of Economic Advisers. He was also involved with the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Advisory Committee on International Relations and the U.S. Bureau of Management and Budget. In 1962, Dr. Maxwell was invited to participate in the International Institute of Public Finance in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Dr. Maxwell was also a visiting lecturer at Melbourne University and the National University, both in Australia and the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C. He was also a Fulbright professor and was awarded a “Social Science Research Fellowship and a Guggenheim Research Fellowship.

Dr. Maxwell’s publications and books are studied and read worldwide and are not for the faint of heart and the uninterested. A reviewer of the book Tax Credits and Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations, described Dr. Maxwell “as displaying his command over a most complex and intricate area of public finance, that of the relationship between the central government and state and local government units. The whole area of intergovernmental fiscal relations is one in which only the ignorant or the foolish would dare to propose simple dogmatic solutions. This book is recommended.” Some of the other snuggle-up books to read on a on a rainy day are: Financing State and Local Governments, Tax Credits and Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations, The Fiscal Impact on Federalism in the United States and Commonwealth State Financial Relations in Australia, just to name a few titles of his many books, publications and papers.

Dr. James Maxwell worked his entire 42-year academic career at Clark University with various breaks and sabbaticals to lecture, write and advise. He was married twice. His first wife, Rita Nickerson, passed away in 1944. In 1946 James married Mary Newall. The two marriages produced five children William, James Jr., Daniel, Anne and Ellen. James Ackley Maxwell Jr. became a famous American actor, theater director and writer. James Jr. acted and directed many live theatre plays well as in television and big screen movies such as; Dr. Who, The Avengers, The Saint, Far From the Madding Crowd and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. James Jr. passed away in London in 1995.

Westville’s own Dr. James A. Maxwell retired in 1966 and lived out his life at Worcester, Mass., where he passed away in 1975.

Special thanks to Fordyce Williams at Clark University Archives, Worcester Mass., and Paul Grimes, Dean, Pittsburg State University.



John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.