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William Farr: A Founder of the Field of Medical Statistics

Published on: 30th November 2017

210 years ago today, William Farr was born in Kenley, Shropshire. Growing up in poor and rural surroundings, nobody could have predicted that Farr would one day be known as one of the founders of medical statistics.

He was supported by local philanthropist Joseph Pryce and decided in 1826 to study medicine, serving an apprenticeship to a Shrewsbury surgeon at the same time. In 1828 Pryce died, leaving Farr a legacy of £500 which enabled him to broaden his horizons and study in Paris, where he was introduced to hygiene and medical statistics.

He returned to Shrewsbury and shortly after continued his studies at University College London, qualifying as a physician in March 1832. He married a year later and started a medical practice in Fitzroy Square, London. To supplement his income, he became involved in medical journalism and statistics. The quality of this work attracted the attention of the editor of The Lancet, Dr Thomas Wakley, which opened new doors for Farr and gave him a wider audience.

In the following years, Farr completed two works of note: a chapter called ‘Vital Statistics’ for the pre-eminent Victorian economist John McCulloch’s reference text Statistical Account of the British Empire, and an article on consumption (tuberculosis).

Tragically, his wife died of the very same disease he had been writing about in 1837. He remarried four years later and fathered eight children. He named his youngest daughter Florence after his close friend and colleague Florence Nightingale. She grew up to become a highly successful artist, writer, director, and West End actor. She was not only a friend of Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats, but was also a ‘first wave’ feminist and wrote extensively in support of women’s rights.

The same year Farr’s first wife died, he was appointed Compiler of Abstracts at the General Register Office (now known as the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys). The office had been created by Parliament in 1836 to track births and deaths in England and Wales. He was appointed on a salary of £350 a year and for the next 40 years devoted himself to creating and developing the first national system of vital statistics and to improving public health and hygiene.

He began the compilation of vital statistics data on an annual basis, including analyses of causes of death and assessments of mortality by occupation. Such detailed statistics provided the raw data which allowed a far more detailed analysis of death within the general population. For example, the mortality rates of different professions or of those living in different locations could be compared.

Physician and epidemiologist John Snow used Farr’s data to prove the waterborne transmission of cholera, even though William Farr himself didn’t convert to this theory until 1866 (by which time Snow had died).

During his time at the General Register Office, Farr not only wrote many essays on vital statistics, but represented the British Government at many European statistical congresses where he was able to address delegates in French, German and Italian.

In 1864 Farr was the first to publish work containing material calculated and printed by a machine, Scheutze’s Difference Engine, a forerunner of the computer. He used it to calculate life tables based on 6 470 720 deaths in England between 1841 and 1851.

Farr’s second wife passed away in 1867. Two years later, the Registrar General retired and Farr hoped to ascend to the vacant post. However, despite warm endorsements from the scientific community, he did not receive the appointment, and in consequence, he retired in 1880.

He died three years later on 14 April 1883 at the age of 76 and was buried with his wife at Bromley Common Church.

Today, we celebrate him not only as our institute’s namesake, but also as one of the greatest medical statisticians and epidemiologists, a scientist who contributed enormously to the sanitary and public health reforms of the 19th century.

 

For more information about William Farr follow these links:
http://fn.bmj.com/content/87/1/F67
https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/36/5/985/775018


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