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William Ogle (1827–1912)

Edward Higgs

Dr William Ogle became Superintendent of Statistics in the General Register Office (GRO) in 1880, and held the post until his retirement in 1893. His career there has been overshadowed by that of his illustrious predecessor, William Farr, although he made important contributions to medical statistics in his own right. His work on suicides was, for example, used by the sociologist Emile Durkheim (Woods). Moreover, Ogle moved in exalted scientific circles, being a friend of Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Hooker. He was a distinguished botanist in his own right, and produced translations of a number of Aristotle's physiological works (Browne, 415; The Times.). Ogle became a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1885, and its vice-president 1890–1.

William Ogle was born on December 21, 1827, the fourth son of James Adey Ogle, Regius Professor of Medicine in the University of Oxford. He passed with a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and was elected a fellow of his college on his twenty-first birthday. After residing a few years at Oxford, where he took his M.A. and M.D. degrees, he was ordained Deacon, but very soon abandoned holy orders and entered the medical profession. He studied at St. George's Hospital, and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1859 and a fellow in 1866. He was appointed Lecturer on Physiology at the Medical School of St. George's Hospital. But anxiety over his health led him to resign this office in 1872. He was for a time the medical officer of health for South Hertfordshire, and was an examiner in natural science at Oxford, before taking up his position in the GRO (The Times).

Whilst Superintendent of Statistics his work published in the Annual Report of the Registrar General (ARRG) covered numerous fields, including: smallpox and vaccination, and suicides (1880); the inadequate certification of the causes of death (1881); the increase in cancer deaths (1884); the incubation periods of hydrophobia, and the local distribution of diabetes (1885); the death-rates from scarlet fever at different ages (1886); a life table for, and the causes of death in, the first year of life (1891); and so on. In 1887, at the request of the Local Government Board, he undertook a survey of the living conditions of working-class families in the East End of London (Conditions of the working classes).

Ogle also used his only decennial Supplement to look at mortality in the years 1871 to 1880. His approach was, however, rather more technical than Farr's, and showed a greater willingness to tackle some of the problems in the GRO's statistical series. Thus, he stressed the importance of being able to look at local mortality after the taking of two censuses, when the start and end populations were thus known. This avoided the problems of estimating local population sizes in inter-censal years, a practice that might lead to misleading mortality rates being calculated (Supplement to the Registrar General's Forty-fifth Annual Report, iii). He also produced a new English Life Table, and started to explore the effects that differences in age and sex distributions in differing populations would have on general death rates. This led eventually to the development of techniques for 'correcting' for such distorting effects (Mooney, 1997, 60–1; Ogle, 1892). Similarly, even after the introduction of compulsory medical certification of deaths in 1874, there were still problems with the terminology used by medical practitioners. Ogle had to resort to sending thousands of death certificates back to doctors in order to get them to provide replies that conformed to the models of disease causation implicit in the GRO's classifications of disease (Hardy, 476).

Ogle was also involved in the taking of the censuses of 1881 and 1891. Here Ogle appears to have been cautious in his approach to the expansion of the questions asked. During the deliberation of the 1890 Treasury Committee on the Census he stressed the importance of not overburdening the enquiry and the need to concentrate on getting decent results from the existing questions. He fought the introduction of questions on employment status both at the Committee and in its aftermath. When he was forced to acquiesce in the introduction of the questions, he declined to analyze the results in the subsequent Census Report (Schürer; Census of England and Wales, 1891, Vol. IV General Report, 35–6). How far this reflected a personal unwillingness to innovate, or an awareness of the problems of collecting reliable data, is difficult to tell. Certainly, it is of a piece with his recognition of the limitations of civil registration data. However, the GRO in the last decades of the nineteenth century appears to have experienced a period of inertia, probably a reflection of poor management and financial constraints, and Ogle's outlook may have been affected by this relative institutional paralysis (Higgs, 90–128).


Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: the Power of Place (London, 2003).

Census of England and Wales, 1891, Vol. IV General Report, with summary tables and appendices BPP 1893–4 CVI. [View this document: General report, England and Wales, Vol. IV, 1891]

Conditions of the working classes. Tabulation of the statements made by men living in certain selected districts of London in March 1887, BPP 1887 LXXI.

Anne Hardy, '"Death is the cure of all disease": using the GRO cause of death statistics for 1837–1920', Social History of Medicine 7 (1994), 472–92.

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

Graham Mooney, 'Professionalization in public health and the measurement of sanitary progress in nineteenth-century England and Wales', Social History of Medicine, 10 (1997), 53–78.

William Ogle, 'Proposal for the establishment and international use of a standard population, with fixed sex and age distribution, in the calculation and comparison of marriage, birth and death rates', Bulletin de l'Institute International de Statistique VI (1892), 83–5.

The Times, 15 April 1912, 9.

Kevin Schürer, 'The 1891 census and local population studies', Local Population Studies, 47 (1991), 16–29.

Supplement to the Registrar General's Forty-fifth Annual Report, BPP 1884–85 XVII (C.4564). [View this document: Supplement to registrar-general's forty-fifth annual report]

Robert Woods, 'Physician, heal thyself: the health and mortality of Victorian doctors', Social History of Medicine, 9 (1996), 1–30.