Born in London and educated in Edinburgh, Lord John became an MP in 1813. He was Home Secretary from 1835 to 1839 and Secretary of State for War from 1839 to 1841. When Peel's new Conservative Party split over Corn Law repeal, Russell became prime-minister (1846). It was he who instituted the programme of public works as a form of famine relief in Ireland and when this proved too expensive he tried to force Irish landlords to pay for the costs of feeding the poor themsleves, resulting in further evictions and deaths from starvation.
Russell remained active in politics for another twenty years, serving as Foreign Secretary from 1859 to 1865, and prime-minister again from 1865 to 1866.