Statist. Sci. 20 (2), 178-192, (May 2005) DOI: 10.1214/088342305000000052
David R. Bellhouse, Christian Genest
KEYWORDS: Andrew A. Watt, Philip P. Carpenter, crude death rate, Montreal Sanitary Association, mortality comparisons, public health, sanitation, standardized mortality ratio, statistical controversies
From 1858 to 1860, the English naturalist and social activist Philip P. Carpenter toured North America. In April of 1859 he visited Montréal, Canada. Shocked by the sanitary conditions of the city, he wrote a paper that used statistical arguments to call for health reforms. Six years later he settled in Montréal and quickly became an active promoter of this cause. He began accumulating additional numerical evidence in support of his views.
In the aftermath of a cholera scare in 1866, Carpenter became the driving force behind the creation of the Montreal Sanitary Association. That same year he published a second, more detailed article that took advantage of the 1861 census data to analyze mortality rates in Montréal. He made further statistical investigations in 1869.
Unfortunately, Carpenter did not understand some of the subtleties associated with the analysis of vital statistics. An obscure bookkeeper, Andrew A. Watt, made a scathing public attack on both Carpenter’s data and his interpretation thereof. In a series of newspaper articles, Watt scrutinized systematically all of Carpenter’s writings, showing his faults and correcting them wherever he could.
Although Watt’s arguments were correct, the public was slow to understand them. The controversy continued through 1870. When the nature of Watt’s criticisms finally became better understood and Carpenter persisted with statistical arguments, the latter lost credibility and was abandoned by his own association.