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William Farr (1807–1883)

Edward Higgs

William Farr was 'compiler of abstracts' at the General Register Office (GRO) from 1839, and Superintendent of Statistics from 1842 until he retired at the end of 1879. During this period he was the main intellectual force within the GRO, and the greatest medical statistician of his day.

Farr was born in 1807 in Shropshire, the son of a farm labourer. He was taken up by Joseph Pryce, the local squire of Dorrington near Shrewsbury, who provided him with a primary education, and a medical training in Shrewsbury and Paris. In March 1832 he became a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, the most lowly of the bodies then able to issue medical qualifications. The next year he married and set up medical practice in London. The couple were poor, and the Farrs took in lodgers, whilst William began a career in medical journalism. He published articles in The Lancet, helped edit the British Medical Almanack, and initiated the short-lived weekly British Annals of Medicine, Pharmacy, Vital Statistics, and General Science (Eyler, 1–12; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He also wrote on vital statistics, eventually contributing a chapter on 'Vital statistics' to John Ramsay McCulloch's A Statistical Account of the British Empire (1837).

In 1838, Farr received a temporary appointment to the GRO to help organize the data from the newly created system of vital registration of births, deaths and marriages, and finally joined the official establishment of the Office as 'compiler of abstracts' in July 1839. By 1842 he had been elevated to Superintendent of Statistics, in charge of his own department. The GRO had not been established by Parliament to produce extensive statistical series, and the development of this work appears to have been due to the interest taken in it by Thomas Lister, the first Registrar General, and Edwin Chadwick at the Poor Law Commission. The latter may have been responsible for suggesting Farr's name to Lister. Farr does not appear to have been a very competent man of business, and much of his subsequent statistical work was based on the solid administrative foundations laid by the second Registrar General, Major George Graham (Higgs, 2004, 29–89).

Farr worked on forty-one Annual Reports of the Registrar General (ARRG), often providing a 'Letter to the Registrar General' in which he discussed trends in mortality and other statistical matters. His first Letter, in the first ARRG, was only one of 17 appendices to the Registrar General's own 'Report' (First Annual Report of the Registrar General) but soon became one of the main features of the ARRG. He also produced two Decennial Supplements, looking at mortality trends in the decades 1851 to 1860 and 1861 to 1870, and he helped to write the Census Reports for the enumerations of 1851, 1861, and 1871. Through this vast output Farr developed many of the standard methods of modern vital statistics and epidemiology. He designed a statistical nosology, or classification of diseases, for tabulating reported deaths that long influenced the International List of the Causes of Death. He developed mathematical expressions to model how epidemics developed and to describe the relationship between population density and mortality (Eyler, 53–60, 97–122). Farr's attempts at creating classifications of occupations in the Census Reports were also influential but perhaps less successful (Higgs, 1996, 154–67). By comparing the relatively low mortality rates in rural areas with those in the unhealthy cities, he was able to measure preventable mortality, and so provide ammunition for public health reformers (Szreter). Farr developed the life table as the best means of measuring the life expectancy of a population. This was originally done to provide sound actuarial tools for insurance schemes but he soon extended its use to other areas (Eyler, 66–96; Higgs, 2004, 29–40).

Farr was active in the broader public sphere outside the GRO. He worked closely with Florence Nightingale on hospital and army sanitary reform, preparing parts of the Report of the Army Sanitary Commission (1857–8), serving on the 1861 Committee of Army Medical Statistics, and working as a member and the paid actuary consultant for the Indian Sanitary Commission (1859–63) (Eyler, 159–89). Farr often appeared as a witness before parliamentary investigations, including the Select Committee on Insurance Associations (1852–3), the 1861 Select Committee on Income and Property Tax, the 1864 Royal Commissions on Mines, and the Royal Sanitary Commission (1868–9). In 1864 he designed the Post Office insurance scheme, and served as a private actuarial consultant. He was an active member of the International Statistical Congress, and of the Statistical Society of London (later Royal Statistical Society). He was the president of the latter in 1871 and 1872. Farr was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1855 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). In his last year in the GRO his physical and mental powers appear to have been in decline, and George Graham's final act as Registrar General in 1879, before he himself retired, was to ask for Farr to be retired on full pay since 'his health has lately sadly failed in both body and mind, having obtained the age of 72 years' (National Archives, London: RG 29/2, 282). Nevertheless, Farr applied for the post of Registrar General in 1880. When the appointment went to Sir Brydges Henniker, the medical profession protested that his talents and contributions had been overlooked. Some historians have tended to concur in seeing this as a slight, although at his age, and in his health, it is inconceivable that Farr could have held down the onerous job (Flinn, 27; Higgs, 2004, 119–20). Also in 1881, he was made Companion of the Bath and received the British Medical Association's gold medal. In March 1880 a testimonial fund was begun in his honour to provide support for his three unmarried daughters whose financial future was endangered because of some of Farr's unwise investments made in his declining years. He died on 14 April 1883 at his home in Maida Vale, London, and was buried at Bromley Common church (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).


John M. Eyler, Victorian social medicine. The ideas and methods of William Farr (London, 1979).

First Annual Report of the Registrar General (1837–1838), BPP 1839 XVI.

M. W. Flinn, 'Introduction', to Edwin Chadwick, Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain (Edinburgh, 1965).

Edward Higgs, A clearer sense of the census: the Victorian census and historical research (London, 1996).

Edward Higgs, Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837–1952 (Hatfield, 2004).

John Ramsay MacCulloch, A Statistical Account of the British Empire, exhibiting its extent, physical capacities, population, industry, and civil and religious institutions (London, 1837).

TNA RG 29/2, General Register Office Letter Books.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Simon Szreter, 'The GRO and the public health movement in Britain 1837–1914', Social History of Medicine, 4 (1991), 454–62.