Shaw, George Ferdinand (1821–99), journalist and academic, was born 26 June 1821 in Dublin, a son of William Shaw, printer. Educated in Dublin, he entered Trinity College in 1838, aged seventeen, as a sizar, which would indicate that he was not from a wealthy family. He later won a scholarship (1841), was awarded a BA (1844), and made a junior fellow of the college (1848), one of the few lay fellows permitted at the time. His employment at TCD allowed Shaw to remain as a tutor there while simultaneously holding a position as the first professor of physics at the newly built Queen's College, Cork (1849–55). However, in 1855 he returned to TCD, obtaining an MA in spring 1856 and LLB and LLD degrees later in the same year. Shaw held various senior college offices throughout his career, combining his academic commitments with an increasing interest in popular journalism. In 1890 he was co-opted a senior fellow, a position he held until his death. He was examiner in ethics and logic (1857–8 and 1860–61), junior dean (1875–7), registrar in the school of law (1877–91), and senior dean and registrar (1890–93), discharging the last position with ability despite his advancing years.
Shaw contributed to journalism as joint editor of the Irish Times (c.1861), editor of Saunders's News Letter, and leader writer for the Evening Mail (1870) and the Nation. He had previously used his newspaper connections to voice his unhappiness with practices at TCD, bringing him into direct conflict with the ruling board of the college, and one such instance in 1858, when he and one other had complained in the Dublin Evening Mail about the poor pay and prospects of promotion for non-tutor fellows within the college, resulted in his being severely censured.
Having been elected a member of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (1848), Shaw was appointed one of their Barrington lecturers (1861), a position requiring him to deliver annually, for three years (for a salary of £120), twenty lectures in Dublin and throughout the country. He published three papers in the society's journal, social commentaries which illustrated his liberal and practical thinking on many of the issues of the day, such as secret societies, the education system, and how to open university education to a wider cross-section of Irish society. The papers were entitled ‘Use and abuse of apprenticeships’ (iii, 1861, 93–100); ‘How to improve school education in Ireland’ (iii, 1863, 368–75) and ‘Affidavits’ (v, 1868, 13), a discussion of oaths in which he pondered if anyone took them seriously.
Shaw's article on how to improve the education system in Ireland presented a model for improving the school system by instituting state-run annual examinations with monetary prizes for the best cumulative marks for students in a range of subjects. The results would be published in a league table, thereby stimulating competition between students and teachers and giving parents a guide as to the best schools. His plan envisaged new subjects being taught – modern languages, English literature, history, and geography in addition to the existing diet of classics and mathematics. His proposal was in opposition to the government plans to build non-denominational endowed schools, which he saw as ideologically and financially flawed, his proposal costing £2,700 per annum and that of the government, £30,000 per annum.
A man of deep convictions, Shaw objected to plans to award an honorary degree to a well-known Oxford scientist (and vivisectionist), Burdon Saunderson, during the tercentenary celebrations at TCD in 1894. McDowell and Webb, in their history of TCD, refer to Shaw as a ‘maverick’ who used the college as a base for his diverse interests rather than as the centre of his activities, and whose contributions to Dublin life were more to its entertainment than education, though they admit that he introduced a note of variety and a less cloistered outlook to the deliberations of the board, of which he became a member as a senior fellow.
Shaw was a man about town and a friend of Dublin celebrities, full of tireless energy and never at a loss for an anecdote or witticism. Even a few days before his death he was noticed chatting to pretty girls at the college races. In 1853 he married Ellen Shinkwin, the daughter of John Shinkwin. He died in Dublin after an operation on 19 June 1899. His obituary in The Times (20 June 1899) declared that ‘By the death of Dr Shaw, whose many-sided ability had touched and adorned almost every department of Irish intellectual life, Dublin University, Dublin society and Dublin journalism have suffered a heavy loss.’