Farr, William

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William Farr, a physician by training, was the most prominent expert in vital statistics in Great Britain in the nineteenth century. After completing his medical studies in London and in Paris, where he became a disciple of Dr. Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis and his méthode numérique, Farr set up a practice as a pharmacist in 1833. He contributed a chapter to John Ramsey McCulloch's A Statistical Account of the British Empire (1837), showing his skill in presenting and interpreting vital statistics but arguing that the government still had too little knowledge about diseases to be successful in reducing mortality. This was the origin of one of his lifelong concerns: improving data on the cause of death.

Farr joined Britain's General Register Office (GRO) in 1839 as Compiler of Abstracts and became Statistical Superintendant some years later. From 1840 to 1880 he seems to have been the key person behind all the reports issued by the GRO, including the Annual Reports to Parliament. As early as 1839 he proposed a classification of causes of death on the basis of illness location in the body. At the first international conference on statistics (1855), he presented a new proposed classification in competition with the Swiss physician and medical statistician Marc-Jacob d'Espine. Great Britain used the first of Farr's schemes for its statistics until 1860 and the second until 1880.

Farr constructed life tables for England and Wales for 1841, 1838–1844, and 1851. The technical innovations he introduced included a formula to derive life-table survival rates from mortality rates and the use of standardized mortality rates. In 1880 he published a sort of reproduction table but did not arrive at the notion of the reproduction rate. For Britain's censuses he added new categories of occupations and disabilities.

Farr participated in many commissions dealing with sanitary reforms, notably for the armies affected by diseases in the Crimea and India. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, president (1871–1873) of the Statistical Society of London, and the recipient of other forms of academic recognition but never became, as he had hoped, Registrar General.

See also: Bertillon, Jacques; Causes of Death; Demography, History of; Disease, Concepts and Classification of; Life Tables.


Hamlin, Christopher. 1998. Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick. Britain, 1800–1854. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Humphrey, Noel, ed. 1885/1975. Vital Statistics: A Memorial Volume of Selections from the Reports and Writings of William Farr, ed. Sanitary Institute of Great Britain. London: Scarecrow.

Stone, Richard. 1997. Some British Empiricists in the Social Sciences 1650–1900. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Wall, Richard. 1974. Mortality in Mid 19th Century Britain. Heppenheim/Bergstrasse, Germany: Gregg International, D.C. Heath.

Woods, Robert, and Nicola Shelton. 1997. An Atlas of Victorian Mortality. Liverpool, Eng.: Liverpool University Press.

Wrigley, E. Antony, and Roger Schofield. 1981. The Population History of England, 1541–1871: A Reconstruction. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Patrice Bourdelais