Quote Origin: A Committee Should Consist of Three People, One of Whom Is Always Sick and the Other Is Always Absent

Herbert Beerbohm Tree? Hendrik Willem van Loon? E. V. Lucas? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? Robert Oliver Jones? Lord Palmerston? Cedric Hardwicke? Robert Copeland?

Question for Quote Investigator: Committees are common tools for decision making, but detractors have highlighted their inefficiency, unimaginativeness, and inflexibility. Here are four examples from a pertinent family of humorous remarks:

(1) The best committee is a committee of three with two of them ill in bed.

(2) A committee should consist of three people, two of whom are absent.

(3) Nothing is accomplished by a committee unless it consists of three members, one of whom happens to be sick and another absent.

(4) The ideal committee is a committee of two when one of them is absent.

English theatre manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, English humorist E. V. Lucas, and Dutch historian Hendrik Willem van Loon have each received credit for quips of this type. Would you please explore the provenance of this family of jokes?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in an October 1878 article published in “The Western Daily Press” of Bristol, England. Prominent religious figure Charles Haddon Spurgeon spoke at the annual session of the Baptist Union held in Leeds. He discussed the desirability of continual progress which he emphasized by using the catchphrase “drive on”. Boldface added to excepts by QI:1

He liked committees for such work. Oh, yes; but the best committee was a committee of three, and two of them ill in bed. (Laughter.) Let the third man take the reins, and so drive on.

Spurgeon deserves credit for popularizing this joke. Also, based on current evidence he initiated this family of quips although it remains possible he was repeating an existing remark.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree received credit for an instance in 1920. Hendrik Willem van Loon used an instance in 1927. E. V. Lucas employed an instance in 1931. Others have delivered versions of this popular jest.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1878 the “Vermont Christian Messenger” of Montpelier, Vermont ascribed the joke of Spurgeon:2

As Mr. Spurgeon has put it, “The best committee is a committee of three, and two of them ill in bed.” It is waiting for other people to do their duty that hinders the Lord’s cause at the hands of His people.

In 1887 the “Brighton Gazette” of Sussex, England printed an instance without attribution:3

“The best committee is a committee of three when two are absent” is the experience of most business men, and experience can always get on better without the application of that commercial brake — the standing committee.

In 1888 “The Central Glamorgan Gazette” of Bridgend, Wales printed an instance together with an attribution:4

A very hackneyed expression is that attributed to the late Mr Robert Oliver Jones, that the best committee was that of three — when two were absent. Not quite a parallel, but perhaps as efficient was the meeting of two shareholders at the half-yearly meeting of the local gas company. №1 proposed the adoption of the report and accounts, and №2 seconded it . . .

In 1889 “The Western Times” of Devon, England printed an anonymous instance:5

Somebody had said that no Committee should consist of more than three, and that the business would be better done when two were absent — (laughter).

In 1892 “The Ilfracombe Chronicle” of Devon, England attributed the quip to Lord Palmerston who had died in 1865:6

Mr. Cole remarked that an eminent man — Lord Palmerston — once said that the best committee to transact business was a committee of three, and then the work could be done very much better when two were absent. (Laughter.)

In 1913 “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News” of London printed the following:7

It is a big committee, and its latent utility is according to its size, but I do not think there is any reason to suppose that it will differ in potential force to other committees, of which it has been generally said that the best number is three when two are absent.

In 1920 Max Beerbohm published a book about his half-brother Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The work included an appendix containing extracts from a notebook written by Herbert:8

If your hat blows off, never run after it. Somebody will always run after it for you.

A committee should consist of three men, two of whom are absent.

If we don’t take ourselves seriously, who will?

In October 1920 “The Sporting Times” of London reprinted material from the book about Herbert Beerbohm Tree:9

Wit and wisdom from Beerbohm Tree’s Notebook: —

“A Committee should consist of three men, two of whom are absent.”

“Genius is an infinite faculty for not taking pains.”

“I often wake in the morning determined not to tell the truth — but before the sun has set I find myself the richer by another enemy.”

In 1927 Hendrik Willem Van Loon published the history book “America”, and he included a different version of the joke:10

Like all good business men they knew that nothing is ever accomplished by a committee unless it consists of three members, one of whom happens to be sick and another absent.

In 1931 humorist E. V. Lucas (Edward Verrall Lucas) published a piece in “The Sunday Times” of London which employed a variant quip based on two committee members instead of three:11

“The best committee is a committee of two when one of them is absent. Ha! ha!”
“Yes, dear, I’ve heard you say so often.”

In 1934 “Readers Digest” magazine published the following item:12

Nothing is ever accomplished by a committee unless it consists of three members, one of whom happens to be sick and another absent.
Hendrik van Loon:
historian and geographer

In 1951 “The Treasury Of Humorous Quotations” edited by Evan Esar and Nicolas Bentley included the following item:13

The best committee is a committee of two when one is absent
Lucas, Edward Verrall, 1868–1938
English essayist and author.

In 1953 a columnist in a San Pedro, California newspaper printed an instance while deliberately misspelling the word “humorist”:14

“A committee generally consists of three members,” comments a backeast youmorist “one of whom is always sick and the other always absent.”

In 1956 Hesketh Pearson published a biography titled “Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter” which contained the following passage:15

Before his arrival at, say, a committee meeting, the members seemed to feel what Dr Johnson called ‘the tediousness of time’. He brought with him the excitement of time. One of his phrases ran: ‘A committee should consist of three men, two of whom are absent’; but his presence imparted vivacity even to a committee, so that every member appeared to be present.

In 1961 English actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke published an autobiography in which he attributed a variant to Beerbohm Tree:16

Tree in the old days used to argue, “The only committee that is any good is a committee of three when two are sick.” I got sick of it all, but I attended nevertheless.

In 1968 a syndicated columnist in the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois printed the following item:17

Edward V. Lucas: “The best committee is a committee of two when one is absent.”

In 1986 “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations” contained the following quotation and attribution:18

To get something done a committee should consist of no more than three men, two of whom are absent.
Robert Copeland

In 1989 English quotation expert Nigel Rees explored this topic in his book “Why Do We Quote?”. Rees mentioned several people who had received credit for variants including Lord Mancroft, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Hendrik Willem van Loon, and E. V. Lucas.19

In conclusion, Charles Haddon Spurgeon deserves credit for using this quip in 1878. Currently, he is the leading candidate for founder of this family of jokes. Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Hendrik Willem van Loon, E. V. Lucas and others subsequently employed variants.

Image Note: Public domain illustration depicting a committee of three.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Nigel Rees for his pioneering research on this topic. Special thanks to Jonathan Danziger who accessed the 1931 citation in “The Sunday Times”.

  1. 1878 October 12, The Western Daily Press, Mr Spurgeon On Christian Work, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Bristol, Avon, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  2. 1878 December 12, Vermont Christian Messenger, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Montpelier, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1887 March 31, Brighton Gazette, The Brighton and Sussex Flower Shows, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Brighton, Sussex, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  4. 1888 March 2, The Central Glamorgan Gazette, Cosmopolitan Notes, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, Wales. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1889 March 15, The Western Times, Devon County Council, Quote Page 5, Column 6, Exeter, Devon, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1892 March 12, The Ilfracombe Chronicle, Ilfracombe Local Board, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Ilfracombe, Devon, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1913 January 11, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Circular Notes, Quote Page 827, Column 2, Publisher by The Lady’s Pictorial and Sporting and Dramatic Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1920, Herbert Beerbohm Tree: Some Memories of Him and of His Art Collected by Max Beerbohm, Appendix IV: Extracts from Herbert Tree’s Note-Books, Quote Page 314, E. P. Dutton and Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  9. 1920 October 30, The Sporting Times, Sportive Notes, Quote Page 1, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  10. 1942 (1927 Copyright), The Story of America by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, Chapter 31: The Compromise That Saved a Nation and Founded an Empire, Quote Page 241, Forum Books Edition: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (1927 title “America”) (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  11. 1931 January 18, The Sunday Times, A Wanderer’s Notebook: Committees by E. V. Lucas, Quote Page 10, Column 1, London, England. (Gale Historical Archive of The Sunday Times) ↩︎
  12. 1934 June, Readers Digest, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 50, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  13. 1971 (Copyright 1951), The Treasury Of Humorous Quotations Edited by Evan Esar, English Edition Edited by Nicolas Bentley, Section: Edward Verrall Lucas, Quote Page 129, J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  14. 1953 August 29, San Pedro News-Pilot, Dick’s Mixture by Dick Micks, Quote Page 4, Column 5, San Pedro, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  15. 1956 Copyright, Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter by Hesketh Pearson, Chapter 12: Man and Manager, Quote Page 107, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  16. 1961, A Victorian in Orbit: The Irreverent Memoirs of Sir Cedric Hardwicke by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as told to James Brough, Chapter 15, Quote Page 192, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  17. 1968 December 8, Chicago Tribune, Section: Chicago Tribune Magazine, Larry Wolters’ Gag Bag, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  18. 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: Committees, Quote Page 53, Column 2, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  19. 1989, Why Do We Quote? by Nigel Rees, Quote Page 44 and 45, Blandford Press: An Imprint of Cassell, London. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
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