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July 11, 1980

Victorian Social Medicine: The Ideas and Methods of William Farr

JAMA. 1980;244(2):194. doi:10.1001/jama.1980.03310020062035

William Farr (1807-1883) helped lay the foundations of modern vital statistics and epidemiology. His bestknown legacy is the life table, with its familiar summing-up statistic, the expectation of life at birth—widely and not always wisely used as a measure of the health of different populations. Farr's part in the developing of statistics as a means of rationalizing Victorian social policy is the subject of this monograph, written by a teacher of the history of medicine.

Although the work follows a chronological sequence from Farr's birth to his death, it is not really a biography. The personality and personal life of the man are given little attention, which seems a pity. To judge from occasional quotations, particularly during his years of active collaboration with Florence Nightingale, William Farr was a warm and energetic man, angry, like many of his contemporaries, over the "stench of urban poverty" and confident that quantitative science