How We Come To Use Data To Fight Epidemics

graphs showing number of deaths from Cholera in 1849 over a 7 month period.
Cholera deaths in England & Wales from May-November, 1849 Wellcome L0039177 photo by Wellcome Collection is licensed under CC BY 4.0
The number of Cholera deaths over a seven month period highlight how the disease spread across England.

Data is a big deal in COVID-19. This refers not to data plans, but the information that is collected, how it is analysed, how it is interpreted and how it is presented.

William Farr, an English physician, was an early convert to using data to understand epidemics, starting around the time of the multiple cholera outbreaks in the 1800’s. Farr believed that cholera was spread by a miasma, but careful tracing of water suppliers in east London established a link between the disease and water quality that convinced him otherwise.

Early in his career, Farr was appointed the Compiler of Abstracts at the General Register Office, which was responsible for recording births and deaths in England. He played a critical role in illuminating health inequities between different social classes and occupations.

The World Health Organization recalls William Farr’s remarkable career and contribution at the turn of this century: William Farr’s Legacy To The Study Of Inequalities In Health

In the context of COVID-19, the New York Times has also paid tribute to Farr’s work:1 How Data Became One of the Most Powerful Tools to Fight an Epidemic

For a look at how COVID-19 is compounding pre-existing health inequities, see: COVID-19: Together Is Coming Apart


  1. The New York Times has waived its paywall to make COVID-19 stories available to non-subscribers. You will need to share an email address with the New York Times to read this article.