Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Farr, William
FARR, WILLIAM (1807–1883), statistician, was born at Kenley in Shropshire on 30 Nov. 1807. His parents being in humble circumstances he was adopted in infancy by Mr. Joseph Pryce, the benevolent squire of Dorrington, near Shrewsbury, to which his parents had removed. His early education Farr owed chiefly to himself, and as he grew up he assisted Mr. Pryce in managing his affairs. In 1826–8 he studied medicine with Dr. Webster of Shrewsbury, and acted as dresser for Mr. Sutton at the Shrewsbury Infirmary. His benefactor died, aged 90, in November 1828, leaving 500l. for his further education. Dr. Webster left him a similar legacy in 1837, together with his library. In 1829 Farr went to Paris to study medicine, remaining there two years; and during this period he was first attracted to the study of hygiene and medical statistics. During a Swiss tour he assembled a crowd of cretins at Montigny and examined their heads carefully, taking the shapes of their heads. Returning to London, Farr studied at University College, and in March 1832 became a licentiate of the Apothecaries' Society, the only qualification he gained by examination. In 1833 he married Miss Langford, a farmer's daughter, of Pool Quay, near Welshpool, and began to practise at 8 Grafton Street, Fitzroy Square. He offered to give lectures on what he called ‘hygiology,’ but does not appear to have had any success, as the subject was then totally unrecognised by the medical schools or licensing bodies. His article on ‘Vital Statistics’ in Macculloch's ‘Account of the British Empire,’ 1837, may be said to have laid the foundation of a new science, to the development of which his subsequent life was devoted. About the same time he lost his wife through consumption, and was selected by Sir James Clarke to revise his book on that disease; and it was through Clarke's influence, added to his own growing reputation, that in 1838 Farr obtained the post of compiler of abstracts in the registrar-general's office at a stipend of 350l. per annum, and he gave up medical practice. The first annual report of the registrar-general contains the first of Farr's long series of letters on the causes of death in England. These have been described as ‘from first to last marked by the same lucid marshalling of the facts, the same masterly command of all the resources of method and numerical investigation, the same unaffected and vigorous English, breaking out every now and again, when stimulated by a clear view of some wide generalisation, into passages of great eloquence and pure philosophy. In 1841 Farr was consulted by the census commissioners, but his recommendations were not adopted. He was an assistant commissioner for the censuses of 1851 and 1861, and a commissioner in 1871, and on each occasion his labours greatly contributed to the success of the census, although some of his suggestions were not adopted. He wrote the greater part of the reports on each census. His comments and analyses form in many respects a statistical history of the people. He was very ingenious in discovering useful ends which the returns might serve, and arranging for the due collection of the information required; and his medical knowledge, combined with his skill in calculation and tabulation and his literary ability, made him of unique value in the registrar-general's office. He was not always well advised in holding to his opinions in the teeth of contradictory evidence, and he was somewhat crotchety as to modes of expression. He was also too easily led into supporting schemes of insurance that promised a great deal, with the result of inflicting much pecuniary loss on himself and others. Life tables for insurance purposes and general statistics were two departments of study which engaged much of his attention. He joined the Statistical Society in 1839, and took a prominent part in its proceedings for many years, having been its treasurer from 1855 to 1867, vice-president in 1869 and 1870, and president in 1871 and 1872. In 1847 he received the honorary degree of M.D. from New York. In 1855 he was elected F.R.S. In 1857 he received the honorary D.C.L. from Oxford. In 1880 he was gazetted C.B., and also received the gold medal of the British Medical Association. When Major Graham retired from the office of registrar-general in 1879, it had been generally expected that Farr would be appointed to succeed him. He himself desired to hold the post, if only for a short time, although he would have gained little in stipend, for he had latterly been receiving 1,100l. per annum. On the appointment being given to Sir Brydges Henniker, Farr resigned his post. It can scarcely be said that he was best fitted to discharge the administrative duties of the registrar-generalship; he was a student, somewhat forgetful and absent-minded, rather than a man of business talents. Soon after his retirement paralysis of the brain set in; he died of bronchitis on 14 April 1883.
Farr was personally very popular, unselfish, and devoted to his work. At home and in society he was a most lovable character, of simple tastes, delighting in giving pleasure to children. ‘None who knew him really well,’ says Mr. Humphreys (l. c. p. xxiii), ‘will ever forget the almost magnetic effect of his ever ready, spontaneous, thoroughly hearty, and most musical laugh. Through life his capacity for work, and his complete absorption therein, combined with the rare but invaluable capacity for putting it aside when he left his study, was alike the source of astonishment and admiration among his friends.’ His mind was large and open, he was a wide reader, an accomplished linguist, and a genuine lover of the best art and literature. He took a broad and liberal view of all social and political problems.
Farr married as his second wife, in 1842, Miss M. E. Whittall, who died in 1876. By her he had eight children, five of whom survived him, a son, an officer in the royal navy, and four daughters. Before his death a fund of 1,132l. had been raised in recognition of his services, and invested for the benefit of his three unmarried daughters; after his death government contributed 400l. to the fund, and it was increased to 1,734l. A committee of the Statistical Society undertook to publish a selection of Farr's statistical works, with Mr. Noel A. Humphreys as editor. This appeared in 1885, under the title of ‘Vital Statistics,’ with a portrait of Farr. It is divided into five parts, dealing respectively with population, marriages, births, deaths, life-tables, and miscellaneous subjects, thus constituting a standard statistical work.
Farr contributed many papers to the ‘Lancet’ from 1835 onward. In the ‘British Medical Almanack’ there appeared in 1836 a chronological history of medicine to 1453, with many medical and mortality statistics; in the same almanack for 1837 this matter was given in a briefer form, and brought down to 1836. Much of Farr's work was issued in ‘Reports of the Registrar-General,’ 1839–80. Other of his papers are entitled ‘Letters on the Causes of Death in England;’ ‘Medical Guide to Nice,’ 1841; ‘The Mortality of Lunatics’ (‘Journal of Statistical Society’), 1841; ‘Influence of Scarcities and of the Prices of Wheat on the Mortality of the People of England’ (ib.), 1846; ‘English Life-tables,’ No. 1, 1843, in ‘Registrar-General's Fifth Annual Report;’ ‘English Life-tables,’ No. 2, 1853, in ‘Twelfth Annual Report;’ ‘English Life-tables,’ No. 3, 1864, published separately under the title, ‘Tables of Lifetimes, Annuities, and Premiums, with an Introduction by William Farr;’ ‘Report on the Mortality from Cholera in England in 1848–9,’ 1852; ‘On the Construction of Life-tables, illustrated by a new life-table of the healthy districts of England’ (‘Phil. Trans.,’ 1859); ‘Reports on the English Mortality Statistics,’ 1841–50, 1851–60, 1861–70; ‘Memorandum for the Guidance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the development of the Post Office Insurance Scheme,’ 1865; ‘Report on the Cholera Epidemic of 1866.’ In addition, the Reports and Proceedings of the British Association, and the Social Science Association include many papers by Farr.[Biographical notice, by F. A. C. Hare, 16 pages, 1883; Biographical sketch, by Noel A. Humphreys, prefixed to Farr's Vital Statistics, 1885; Lancet, 5 May 1883, p. 800; Times, 16, 18, 23 April 1883.]