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John Graunt is recognized as the father of demography for his systematic yet critical use of population data to investigate demographic processes. He originated a number of demographic techniques and demonstrated a healthy skepticism of his own data.
Graunt was born in England in 1620. He was the son of a draper and, after completing his apprenticeship, he inherited his father’s business. Graunt acquired some degree of wealth and prestige and rose through the ranks of civil service, although he was not among the educated class of his day.
As a pastime, Graunt studied the Bills of Mortality— birth and death registers published weekly and annually in the London Times throughout the seventeenth century. Birth data was collected from christenings; mortality data was collected by older women, called searchers, who were paid to inquire about cause of death from family and physicians. Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality, which appeared around 1662, explored many demographic questions. His empirical investigation revealed that females tended to have a longer lifespan than males, that London was growing through internal migration from the country, and that the population of London was actually much smaller (around 460,000 people) than commonly asserted (estimates ranged up to seven million).
Graunt also formulated a number of methods that continue to be used by demographers today. He expressed the number of male births relative to female births as a ratio, creating what has come to be known as the sex ratio at birth. He estimated a doubling time for the growth of the city of London. In addition, Graunt observed that mortality varies by age. This insight led him to develop the first life table—a table that follows a virtual population of one hundred people through the age-specific mortality rates of the actual population. Edmund Halley (1656–1742) later perfected the life table and gave it its actuarial application.
One of Graunt’s most important methodological contributions was a skepticism of his own data. Graunt was concerned with unavailable data, poorly defined categories, misspecification of the cause of death, and underreporting. He discussed at length the possibility of searchers being inaccurate, bribed, or drunk at the time of inquiry.
Graunt’s work also made the critical contribution of substantive interpretation. Previously, the Royal Statistical Society’s official goal was merely to gather data, not to interpret it. The Society claimed that “threshing out” the implications of data should be left to the court (i.e., politicians), a position that protected the Society from appearing partisan, but discouraged demographic research.
Late in life, Graunt converted to Catholicism. In the politically and religiously charged atmosphere of England at the time, his conversion had tragic consequences. He was forced to resign from his positions in civil service. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed his home—a setback from which he never recovered. He lived out his last years with the financial help of his friend William Petty (1623–1687). Graunt died in 1674 in such poverty that the Draper Society awarded his widow £4 annually for her upkeep.
Sutherland, Ian. 1963. John Graunt: A Tercentenary Tribute. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 126 (4): 537–556.
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