Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/July 1883/Sketch of Dr. William Farr

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DR. WILLIAM FARR, who died on the 14th of April last, aged seventy-six, was the founder of the English system of vital statistics, and was chiefly instrumental in bringing it to its present state of perfection; and, in the measure that the study of the statistical tables has furnished facts for the guidance of sanitary officers, he may be said to have contributed directly and very greatly to the improvement that took place in the public health conditions of Great Britain during his career.

Dr. Farr was born at Kenley, Shropshire, England, in 1807. He went to school at Dorrington and Shrewsbury, then entered upon a university course in Paris, and concluded his studies in the University of London, in 1831. He served for six months as house-surgeon of Shrewsbury Infirmary, subsequently began the practice and teaching of medicine in London, and afterward edited for some time the "Medical Annual" and the "British Annals of Medicine." In this work he exhibited a power of statistical analysis that attracted the attention of the proprietor of the "Lancet," and he became a constant and valued contributor to that journal, of articles dealing chiefly with vital and medical statistics. He thus acquired a reputation in this line of work, which induced his selection by the Government, in 1838, as compiler of abstracts in the newly-created office of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages. An act of Parliament was passed directing that a statement of the cause of death should be inserted in connection with the registry of the fact, and Dr. Farr was assigned this work specifically on account of his known capacity for statistically analyzing the materials that would come under his eye; the registrar-general stating in his first report that the assignment had been made to him as "a gentleman of the medical profession, whose scientific knowledge and intimate acquaintance with statistical inquiries were ample pledges of his peculiar fitness." For forty years in succession Dr. Farr's reports of his analyses were presented to the registrar-general to form one of the most important parts of his reports, and were the medium for contributing facts, the practical applicability and permanent value of which became every year more evident. Of these reports, as a whole, the registrar-general says in his report for 1879: "To his scientific researches and reports I attribute any reputation that may have accrued to the General Register Office of England and Wales from the time he accepted office in this department." Besides these letters, many special and supplementary reports were contributed by Dr. Farr to the publications issued by the registrar-general. Among them were the "English Life Tables," the first, for 1841, based upon the deaths in all of England and Wales for that year; and the second, for 1844, on the mortality of the seven preceding years; while the third, for 1854, on the seventeen preceding years, was published as a distinct work, prepared by direction of the Government for use as the basis of the post-office insurance system. In 1852 he published a report on the cholera epidemic of 1848-'49; and, in connection with the twenty-ninth annual report of his chief, a report on the cholera epidemic of 1866. Of special value also were his decennial reports on the English mortality statistics of the three decades, 1841-'50, 1851-'60, and 1861-'70, the last of which, says the "Lancet," "especially is a mine of statistical wealth, not only as a treasury of well-arranged and analyzed facts, but as suggestive of fruitful fields for future investigation."

Dr. Farr was appointed an assistant commissioner under the direction of the registrar-general for taking the censuses of 1851, 1861, and 1871; did valuable service in statistically organizing and superintending each of the enumerations, and wrote the greater part of each of the three reports. He was one of the earliest members of the Statistical Society, and was for forty-two years a member of its council, its treasurer for twelve years, and its president in 1871 and 1872. His papers to this society have been pronounced by Mr. Leoni Levi, also an eminent statistician, "replete with facts, rich with mathematical lore, and remarkable for close reasoning," but never dry; and his work was invariably marked by a distinct and due regard to practical results. He was an early and valued supporter of the British Association, the British Medical Association, and the Social Science Association, in the proceedings of all of which bodies papers by him may be found, and was largely instrumental in the formation of the Section of Statistics and Economical Science in the British Association.

Dr. Farr served the state on a large number of royal commissions and parliamentary committees on sanitary and other subjects, in the work of which his special attainments, his familiarity with statistics relating to them, and his mathematical skill, made his assistance desirable, and sometimes indispensable. Among the special subjects with which he was thus at one time or another engaged, were army medical statistics, the health of the army in India, the condition of mines in Great Britain, water-supply, public health, and police super-animation. On all these matters, when called upon, he gave his services cheerfully, and did thorough work. He was present as a representative of Great Britain at the several statistical congresses which have been held at intervals in the various capitals of Europe since the custom was begun, in 1851. At the Statistical Congress held at the Hague in 1869, he made a report upon coinage and metric weights and measures, in which was embodied a recommendation for an international system of metric coinage, with a strong argument in its favor.

"The forty years of Dr. Farr's life preceding his retirement from the public service in 1879," says the "Lancet," "were spent in unremitting statistical labor. It is impossible to doubt either the value of his work, or of its influence upon public opinion in health matters, preparing the way for and making possible the sanitary legislation of 1872 and 1875, which is already so favorably influencing the health and longevity of the English people. We know, however, of no complete list of his contributions to statistical literature." Besides the papers already mentioned in this sketch, we find, referred to in articles of which he is the subject, a paper in the "Lancet" "On Benevolent Funds and Life Assurance in Health and Sickness"; a pamphlet describing a system of Government life assurance; a paper in the "Transactions of the Royal Society" on the "Construction of Life Tables"; the article on "Vital Statistics" in McCulloch's "Statistics of the British Empire"; and papers on the "Finance of Life Insurance," the "Income Tax," the "Valuation of Railways," and the "Valuation of Railways, Telegraphs, Water Companies, Canals, and other Commercial Concerns, with Prospective, Deferred, Increasing, Decreasing, or Terminary Profits." The language of his papers was always characterized by lucidity, simplicity, and common sense, and, notwithstanding the supposed aridity of the subjects, often rose into eloquence and impressive presentation; and his influence on public opinion in health matters is believed by the "Lancet" to have been "in great measure due to his picturesque style of writing, which invested dry facts with popular interest, although it laid him open at times to depreciatory criticism from those who believe that the style of statistical literature and reports should be characterized by the soberest dryness."

In 1879 Major Graham, the registrar-general, Dr. Farr's superior, resigned his office. Public opinion indicated Dr. Farr as his legitimate and only fitting successor; but the Government overlooked the principle of civil-service selection and appointed another person, who was not known to have any special qualifications for the trust. Dr. Farr therefore wrote to Major Graham a letter of resignation of his own position, saying: "Having learned from you that Sir Brydges Henniker is to be the new registrar-general, and thus having lost all chance of being your successor, I shall be glad if the Lords of her Majesty's Treasury will allow me to resign my appointment, and will grant me superannuation allowance to the extent of my full pay. I have served under you nearly forty years, I have taken with you three censuses and I feel confident that I can leave my case in your hands."

Dr. Farr's health failed so rapidly after his retirement that he was soon practically lost to the field of scientific labor in which he had been so long engaged, "and which he had graced," says an English journal, "not only with exceptional intellectual power, but with a genial modesty which charmed all with whom he was brought into contact." His scientific friends, who always regretted that the value of his services had not been recognized and better appreciated by the Government, took measures to raise a testimonial fund for him. Subscriptions were obtained to the amount of nearly a thousand pounds sterling, and this sum was invested at his request, and allowed to accumulate for the benefit of his daughters. An effort is now to be made to obtain a grant from the civil list to his daughters, in connection with which it has been remarked that the value of his work has been more unreservedly acknowledged on the Continent and in America than in his own country, where it has not yet received the recognition it is entitled to at the hands of the nation and its Government.

Dr. Farr's admirable personal and social qualities were well known and esteemed by all who had the privilege of meeting him and being associated with him at scientific assemblies. He was modest, kindly, genial, and bright in his manner, and had a generous appreciation of the services of others. "He was deservedly popular," writes one of his biographers, "in the best sense of that word, and, while the friends who mourn his loss on public and private grounds are innumerable, it seems impossible, to those who knew him, to believe in his having a single enemy."

"As a vital statistician," says an English professional writer, in noticing his death," Dr. Farr's name and work are inseparably bound up with the rise and progress of a science which he had made peculiarly his own. . . . It was the national faith in Dr. Farr, personally, as a vital statistician that invested with so much confidence the registrar-general's statistics, which shed so clear a light upon the black figures of our urban mortality statistics, and thus strengthened the hands of other workers in the field of sanitary reform."