William Farr

William Farr

William Farr

William Farr (30 November 1807 – 14 April 1883) was a nineteenth-century British epidemiologist, regarded as one of the founders of medical statistics.


  • Early life 1
  • General Register Office 2
  • Learned societies and associations 3
  • Research on cholera 4
  • Later life 5
  • Works 6
  • In drama 7
  • Family 8
  • References 9
  • Biographies 10
  • External links 11

Early life

He was born in Kenley, Shropshire, England to poor parents. He was effectively adopted by a local squire, Joseph Pryce, when Farr and his family moved to Dorrington. In 1826 he took a job as a dresser (surgeon's assistant) in Shrewsbury infirmary. Pryce died in November 1828, and left Farr £500 (equivalent to £38,200 in 2016), which allowed him to study medicine in France and Switzerland. In Paris he heard Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis lecture.[1]

Farr returned to England in 1831 and continued his studies at University College London, qualifying as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in March 1832. He married in 1833 and started a medical practice in Fitzroy Square, London. He became involved in medical journalism and statistics.[2]

General Register Office

William Farr, about 1850

In 1837 the General Register Office (GRO) took on the responsibility for the United Kingdom Census 1841. Farr was hired there, initially on a temporary basis to handle data from vital registration.[2][3] Then, with a recommendation from Edwin Chadwick and backing from Neil Arnott, Farr secured another post in the GRO as the first compiler of scientific abstracts (i.e. a statistician).[4][5] Chadwick and Farr had an agenda, demography aimed at public health, and the support of the initial Registrar General Thomas Henry Lister. Lister with Farr worked on the census design, to forward the programme.[6]

Farr was responsible for the collection of official medical statistics in England and Wales. His most important contribution was to set up a system for routinely recording the causes of death. For example, for the first time it allowed the mortality rates of different occupations to be compared.

Learned societies and associations

In 1839, Farr joined the Statistical Society, in which he played an active part as treasurer, vice-president and president over the years. In 1855 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.[7] He was involved in the Social Science Association from its foundation in 1857,[8] taking part in its Quarantine Committee and Committee on Trades' Societies and Strikes.[9]

Research on cholera

There was a major outbreak of cholera in London in 1849 which killed around 15,000 people. Early industrialisation had made London the most populous city in the world at the time, and the River Thames was heavily polluted with untreated sewage. Farr subscribed to the conventional theory that cholera was carried by polluted air rather than water – the miasmic theory. On the other hand, as a result of studying this outbreak, the physician John Snow proposed what is now the accepted mechanism for transmission: people were infected by swallowing something and it multiplied in the intestines.

There was another epidemic in 1853, and Farr gathered statistical evidence. John Snow discovered that people supplied with water from two companies in particular: the Southwark & Vauxhall and the Lambeth water companies – which drew their water directly from the Thames were particularly likely to suffer.[10] Farr took part in the General Board of Health's 1854 Committee for Scientific Enquiries. The conventional explanation for cholera was still multifactorial; Snow's view of cholera as solely caused by a pathogen was not accepted, though his evidence was taken seriously. Farr's research was detailed and showed an inverse correlation of mortality and elevation.[11]

There was a further epidemic in 1866, by which time Snow had died, and Farr had accepted Snow's explanation. He produced a monograph which showed that mortality was extremely high for people who drew their water from the Old Ford Reservoir in East London. Farr's work was then considered conclusive.

Later life

In 1858, he performed a study on the correlation of health and marriage condition, and found that health decreases from the married to the unmarried to the widowed.[12] In the period 1857–9 the Office ordered a difference engine, a model designed by Swedish followers of Charles Babbage.[13] The intended application was the "British Life Table".[14]

William Farr, about 1870

Farr served as a commissioner in the 1871 census, retiring from the General Register Office in 1879 after he was not given the post of Registrar General. He received the Gold Medal of the British Medical Association for his work in the field of biostatistics and was made a Companion of the Order of Bath in 1880.

In his last years, Farr's approach was obsolescent. Bacteriology had changed the face of the medical issues, and statistics became an increasingly mathematic tool. Medical reformers, too, changed approach, expecting less from legislation and central government.[15]


In 1837 Farr wrote the chapter "Vital Statistics" for John Ramsey McCulloch's Statistical Account of the British Empire. In January 1837 he established the British Annals of Medicine, Pharmacy, Vital Statistics, and General Science, discontinued in August of that year. He revised a book of James Fernandez Clarke on tuberculosis.[16]

Farr exploited his GRO post compiling abstracts in a way that went beyond the original job description. In so doing he applied the techniques of Benjamin Gompertz (the Gompertz curve), and the closely allied statistical "law of mortality" of Thomas Rowe Edmonds. Farr, by relying on the existing mathematical model of mortality, could use data sampling to cut back the required computation.[17] From the GRO data he constructed a series of national life tables.[18]

The theory of zymotic disease was Farr's contribution to the debate on aetiology. He identified urbanisation and population density as public health issues.[19] In terms of nosology he classed epidemic, endemic and contagious diseases as "zymotic", seen as diseases of filth and overcrowding.[20]

In drama

In The Sewer King, an episode in the 2003 British television documentary series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, Farr was played by Norman Lovett.[21]


Farr's first wife, whom he married in 1833, had the surname Langford; she died of tuberculosis in 1837. He married Mary Elizabeth Whittal in 1842, and they had eight children.[2] One daughter, Henrietta, was married to painter and illustrator Henry Marriott Paget, the older brother of illustrators Sidney and Walter Paget. Another daughter, Florence Farr, was also a painter and artist and a model of many famous art deco works of art. The Pagets as well as the Farr sisters lived and worked in Bedford Park, the famous artist's colony in West London.


  1. ^ Ian Hacking (31 August 1990). The Taming of Chance. Cambridge University Press. p. 84.  
  2. ^ a b c Eyler, John M. "Farr, William".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ William G. Rothstein (2003). Public Health and the Risk Factor: A History of an Uneven Medical Revolution. Boydell & Brewer. p. 29.  
  4. ^ Dorothy Porter (1999). Health, Civilization, and the State: A History of Public Health from Ancient to Modern Times. Routledge. p. 70.  
  5. ^ Luckin, Bill. "Arnott, Neil".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Raymond Flood; Adrian Rice; Robin Wilson (29 September 2011). Mathematics in Victorian Britain. Oxford University Press. p. 269.  
  7. ^ Norman L. Johnson; Samuel Kotz (26 September 2011). Leading Personalities in Statistical Sciences: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present. John Wiley & Sons. p. 286.  
  8. ^ Lawrence Goldman (2002). Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain. Cambridge University Press. p. 174.  
  9. ^ Michael J. Lacey; Mary O. Furner (25 June 1993). The State and Social Investigation in Britain and the United States. Cambridge University Press. p. 107.  
  10. ^ Aschengrau, A. & Seage, G. R. (2008). Essentials of epidemiology in public health. Pg:15-21 Sudbury, Mass.: Jones And Bartlett Publishers.
  11. ^ Alfredo Morabia (1 January 2004). A History of Epidemiologic Methods and Concepts. Springer. pp. 133–4.  
  12. ^ Tara Parker-Pope (2010-04-14). Is Marriage Good for Your Health? New York Times
  13. ^ Michael Lindgren (1990). Glory and Failure: The Difference Engines of Johann Müller, Charles Babbage and Georg and Edvard Scheutz. MIT Press. p. 289.  
  14. ^ Jeremy M. Norman (1 January 2005). From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology. Norman Publishing. p. 134.  
  15. ^ Lawrence Goldman (2002). Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain. Cambridge University Press. p. 200.  
  16. ^ Norman L. Johnson; Samuel Kotz (26 September 2011). Leading Personalities in Statistical Sciences: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present. John Wiley & Sons. p. 284.  
  17. ^ Alfredo Morabia (1 January 2004). A History of Epidemiologic Methods and Concepts. Springer. p. 155.  
  18. ^ Richard Stone (1997). Some British Empiricists in the Social Sciences, 1650-1900. Cambridge University Press. p. 263.  
  19. ^ Thomas Edward Jordan (1993). The Degeneracy Crisis and Victorian Youth. SUNY Press. pp. 217–8.  
  20. ^ John M. Eyler (15 August 2002). Sir Arthur Newsholme and State Medicine, 1885-1935. Cambridge University Press. p. 34.  
  21. ^ 'The Sewer King' (2003)Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Internet Movie Database


  • John Eyler, Victorian Social Medicine: The Ideas and Methods of William Farr (Baltimore 1979).
  • Michel Dupaquier, "William Farr" in C. C. Hyde, E. Seneta (eds.), Statisticians of the Centuries (New York 2001) pp. 163–166.

External links

  • William Farr: campaigning statistician by Stephen Halliday
  • Royal Society certificate of election
  • Photograph of Farr