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Ryan was the son of John Burke Ryan. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1814 and while at Cambridge, he became friends with John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and George Peacock. Ryan took his MA in 1817 and was called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn in the same year. It was Herchel's sharing of his scientific interests and enthusiasms that encouraged Ryan to join the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820.
He practised on the Oxford circuit and published a volume of law reports jointly with William Oldnall Russell titled "Crown cases reserved for consideration; and decided by the Twelve judges of England, from the year 1799 to the year 1824" before being appointed a puisne judge in the supreme court Calcutta India, then an English colony (see: Company Rule in India, 1757-1857: Policies). The appointment carried the customary knighthood. However, he would complete another book, this time with William Moody, titled "Reports of cases determined at Nisi Prius, in the Courts of King's Bench and Common Pleas: and on the Oxford and Western circuits from the sittings after Michaelmas term, 4 Geo. IV. 1823 to the sittings after Trinity term, 7 Geo. IV. 1826, inclusive" before he left for India.
Ryan arrived in India in 1827 and soon established something of a salon. Victor Jacquemont was a visitor in 1829. Ryan was a keen patron of science, presiding over agricultural and horticultural societies, and a supporter of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.
Secretary to the Board of Control Thomas Babington Macaulay had drafted a criminal code for India and Ryan's support won him Macaulay's affection. Governor-General Lord William Bentinck was also well-disposed and when Russell, his old law-report collaborator, died in 1833, Ryan was appointed Chief Justice of India.
He took sides with Macaulay and Charles Trevelyan in their campaign that education in India should be improved by the widespread teaching of English to give the population access to the educational and instructional materials of the English-speaking world. From 1835, the three served together on the general committee of public education until Macaulay and Trevelyan left for England in 1838 when Ryan took over as president of the committee.
Back in England
Ryan resigned as Chief Justice and returned to England in January 1843 with the intention of acting as assessor to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on appeals from the Indian courts. Consequently, he was sworn a Privy Councillor.
He went on to hold offices including:
- Permanent member of the Judicial Committee (1850–1865);
- Member of a Royal Commission on English criminal law (1845);
- Railway Commissioner (1846-?);
- Assistant Controller of the Exchequer (1851–1862).
In 1850, Trevelyan campaigned along with Charles Hay Cameron for the opening of the Indian Civil Service to the native population and championed the appointment of Soorjo Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty to the Bengal medical service.
Civil Service Commission
The Northcote-Trevelyan Report in 1854 had characterised the British Civil Service as riddled with cronyism and hampered by the inefficiencies of patronage. The report had recommended access to the higher ranks of the service by open competition and public examination. Ryan became the inaugural First Civil Service Commissioner in 1855 with the task of implementing the reforms, and immediately faced the establishment backlash. However, Ryan was both intelligent and tactful and managed to supervise the trialling, evaluation and gradual introduction of universal tests by 1870. The commission also supervised exams for admission to the Indian Civil Service and the British Army.
On the 13th of December 1814 Ryan married Louisa Whitmore (1789–1866) the daughter of William Whitmore and Frances Barbara Lyster. His friend Babbage married her sister, Georgiana (1792–1827), in the same year. The Ryans had eight sons and three daughters:
- Edmund Burke Ryan (1815–1850)
- Frances Hanway Ryan (1817-)
- Lousia Ryan (1818–1906)
- John Cavendish Ryan (1819–1822)
- Wolryche Whitmore Ryan (1821–1867)
- Mary Ann Ryan (1822-)
- Colonel Edward Moody Ryan (1824-), of the Bengal army;
- Robert Henry Ryan (1825-)
- Fredrick York Ryan (1827–1829)
- Sir Charles Lister Ryan (1831–1920), comptroller and auditor-general.
- Colonel William Cavendish Bentinck Ryan (1833–1894) also of the Bengal army, named for the Governor-General of India;
Honours and offices
- Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, (1820);
- Bencher of Lincoln's Inn, (1844);
- Fellow of the Geographical Society, (1846);
- Member of the senate of the University of London, (1846–1875);
- Vice-chancellor, (1871–1874);
- Member of the council of University College, London;
- Member of the Council of Legal Education, (1852);
- Fellow of the Royal Society, (1860).
- "Ryan, Edward (RN810E)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Prior (2006)
- Russell, William Oldnall; Ryan, Edward (1825). Crown cases reserved for consideration: and decided by the Twelve judges of England, from the year 1799 to the year 1824. J. Butterworth and son. Retrieved 15 February 2011.
- Wilkes, M. V. (2002). "Charles Babbage and his world". Notes and Records of the Royal Society 56 (3): 353–365. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2002.0188.
- The Times, 25 August 1875, 1, 7; 8 October 1875
- Prior, K. (2006) "Ryan, Sir Edward (1793–1875)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, accessed 19 August 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required) The first edition of this text is available as an article on Wikisource: "Ryan, Edward (1793-1875)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.