Shortt was an influential Professor of Politics and Economics at Queen's and an architect of the modern Canadian public service. He was born near Walkerton, Ontario and educated at Queen's (BA 1883) and the University of Edinburgh.
Shortt was appointed a Professor of Philosophy at Queen's in 1886 and became the university's first full-time professor of Politics and Economics in 1891. Around this time he also single handedly produced the university library's first card catalogue (see Libraries).
He held the Sir John A. Macdonald Chair of Political and Economic Science from 1899 until 1908, when he was appointed first chair of the Canadian Civil Service Commission, a body created to reform the federal public service. He held this position until 1917 and, under his leadership, the commission transformed the federal public service from an inefficient, patronage-ridden body into a professional organization based on progress through merit.
Shortt subsequently served as chairman of the Board of Publications at the Public Archives of Canada (now the Library and Archives Canada), served as a prominent labour negotiator, published several works of Canadian history, and was a Trustee of Queen's from 1909 until his death. He was married to Elizabeth Smith, a member of Queen's first class of female medical students and later one of Canada's foremost feminists.
Adam Shortt’s personal papers can be found in the Queen’s University Archives.