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Farr, William


A British physician, William Farr (18071883), after statistical training in France, was appointed in 1839 as the compiler of abstracts in the newly established office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths in England and Wales, a position he held for over forty years. His tasks included the systematic review of tables compiled from the data contained in birth and death certificates. His Annual Reports set a pattern for the ideal in careful, critical analysis of and commentary on national tables of vital statistics that many other official statisticians have sough to emulate. Farr's eloquent and moving language, however, has rarely been equaled. In his reports, columns and numbers came to life to tell a devastating story of suffering and premature deatha story that moved political leaders to take action.

Farr is justly honored as a founding father of vital statistics. As a vital statistician he made many significant contributions to the development of what was a primitive aspect of statistics when he started his career. His work was subsequently compiled in Vital Statistics, an 1885 anthology of his writings edited by his protege Noel Humphreys.

Farr developed the first mathematical models of epidemic diseases, which were based on empirical observations and described the genesis, growth, and decline of epidemics. He identified the distinctions between "healthy" and "unhealthy" districts, discerned the relationship between incidence and prevalence, invented the concept of person-years, conceived the idea for retrospective and prospective methods of study, and, with his Swiss colleague Marc d'Espigne, invented the first workable nosology of disease, the precursor of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) that is as of 2000 in its tenth revision. He was one of a small company of men and women that included Florence Nightingale, John Snow, John Simon, and others who met regularly at the London Epidemiological Society during the 1850s and who were, collectively, the leaders of the nineteenth-century Sanitary Revolution.

John M. Last

(see also: Statistics for Public Health; Vital Statistics )

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