Validation of Exceptional Longevity

The Bewildering History of the History of Longevity

by P. Laslett

 

[ References ]

On the 1st March 1681 John Locke, the philosopher, made the following entry in his journal in his chamber at Christ Church, Oxford:

This is one of the earliest, perhaps the earliest, examination by a qualified medical practitioner of a living centenarian, or a person considering herself to be a centenarian. What is more, Locke was a great intellectual, famous for his empirical, commonsensical outlook, though his prose reads like many similar accounts written on the same occasion and to the same end, recording the condition and life-history of a person claiming exceptional longevity. A purpose of such examinations, hinted at but not cited here, has been to try to discover the "secret", the subject's personal secret of living a very, very long life. There are the conventional comments on how remarkably well preserved the ancient woman was, about long life being in the family, about spare diet, and about recollection of historical events which "agrees with her account of her age". Locke is too circumspect to say "confirm", which is typical of that cautious personality, but, and here the great man comes closest to all the others composing such accounts and to the theme of our book, what he sets down is virtually impossible to believe, if Alice George really and truly was 108 in March 1681. Her appearance is perhaps just about credible, if we compare it with descriptions of persons about her alleged age in our own day, with that of Mme Jeanne Calment for example, the oldest of them all.(2)

But her grandmother's age and his account of her senses of smell and sight - threading a needle and so on - call for summary rejection. What she said about her pregnancies invited further questioning. In fact the whole set of particulars most certainly requires validation. If Locke had felt this to be necessary, it might have been difficult, even though he had the woman's son next door to consult. There is no Saltwich to be found in contemporary dictionaries of place names, so that registration of baptism and perhaps marriage would presumably have eluded him. Queen Elizabeth went to Worcester not in 1588 but in 1575, when Alice's account made her age to be 2, not 16. But what Locke did, and here unfortunately he is entirely typical, was to accept her word without question, making no attempt whatever at validation.

This description of a live centenarian lay unpublished for nearly three hundred years(3) and so could hardly have contributed to the cult of centenarians, as I shall call it. This is not true of the most conspicuous of all such descriptions, the report on his post mortem examination of the renowned patriarch, Thomas Parr, ?1483-1635, carried out by Doctor William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, who had also observed Parr shortly before his death. This "poor countryman", Harvey's report runs, "born near Winnington in the county of Shropshire, died on 14th November, in the year of grace 1635, after having lived 152 years and 9 months and surviving nine princes". The account was published in Latin in London in 1669.(4) Harvey did not actually assert his belief in Parr's entirely improbable age, and alluded to it en passant as "a thing incredible". But his concluding statement refers to Parr's being "accustomed even in his 130th year, to engage lustily in every kind of agricultural labour". His report decidedly tended to authenticate the fanciful claims made for the dead man, which had serious consequences for the centenarian cult. This cult might be said to have begun its career among informed and critical people when Harvey encountered "the Old, Old very Old Man", as Parr came to be called. It is notable that the eminent physician and founder of modern physiology showed rather less interest in Parr's ageing secret and rather more in the condition of his penis and his sexual prowess. Parr had been convicted of incontinence, according to common report, "after he had passed his 100th year and his wife did not deny that he had intercourse with her until about twelve years back". It could be that Harvey had asked her himself, but no-one supposes that evidence on this point would go any way towards validating the number of years claimed for the corpse: rather the reverse. Harvey shows no trace of a properly sceptical attitude and the modern reader of his report can only be astonished at his gullibility.(5)

But neither Harvey nor Locke was as credulous as their equally famous predecessor in the initiation of the sceptical, scientific tradition of enquiry, Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The book of his which concerns us, History Naturall and Experimentall, of Life and Death, Or Of the Prolongation of Life, 1638, (London, William Lee and Humphrey Mosley), seems to have been intended to apply the empirical principle to our topic. However, Bacon's text is studded with names of those who lived well beyond 100, especially classical figures like Terentia, Cicero's first wife, 103; Democritus the philosopher, 108; or Luneia the actress, who "acted an whole 100 years on the stage"; and "in our age, William Postell, a Frenchman, lived to 100 and well nigh 20 years". Most remarkable or deplorable of all is the latter part of the following passage (p. 135):

Here Bacon was recounting and giving his enormous authority to what can only be called an entirely fanciful folk tale which haunted many generations of English intellectuals. Once again he refrains from declaring his belief in any one of his stories and referred occasionally to the credulousness of his predecessors. His remarks about English villages are not unrealistic and in the Baconian spirit, but he shows no disposition whatever to validate ages or expect claimants to do so. Writing freely as to the reasons for the phenomena, excessive ages, rather than on their objectivity, he adds a further element to the cult by stating that there were regions where great age abounded. "In the tops of mountains", "running along towards Aethiopia...where by reason of the sands little or no vapour riseth...they live long at this very day, attaining many times an hundred and fifty years" (p. 142).

These passages from Locke, Harvey and Bacon are, I hope, enough to explain why less eminent followers in the movement towards scientific rationalism accepted prevalent dogma on the subject. But they scarcely account for the fact that over a century and a half passed after Locke's death before validation first began to be insisted on in England, or anywhere else as far as I know. Nor do they explain why in this matter intellectuals were willing to accept vulgar errors, as they called them, whereas they dismissed such stories out of hand on other subjects. How extreme popular mythology could be comes out in the original contemporary account of the Hereford Morris Dance which Bacon accepted and so handed on to his successors. Starting by describing a horse race near the city in May 1608, attended as was usual by noblemen and gentlemen, the published tract goes on to list by name and age the participants in the Morris dance which took place at the same time. Such dancing is energetic enough, requiring the stretching out of one leg, with tinkling bells attached, and shaking it about whilst jumping up and down on the other leg. Of the seventeen participants performing these feats 3 were said to be 108 years old, 2 106, 2 102, 2 100, 4 97 and one no less than 120. She was Old Meg, the only woman, the "Maid Marian" of the Morris Dance, which was blended with the popular fable of Robin Hood. Local patriotism comes out strongly and a sexual and procreative interest in that three of the men were stated to have begotten children in their 100th year or thereabouts, one with a wife who gave birth at age 54.(6)

The racegoers, presumably literate and responsible persons, may have spread the report of what was supposed to have happened. But it was through the pamphlet that a friend of Sir William Temple (1628-99) learned of it and passed the information to that very well known politician, diplomat and writer who duly noted it down (Temple, Works, 1757 ed., vol. 3, p. 277). He continued thus: "I have in my life met with two above 112" and a man "who told me he was 124". It seems unnecessary to add that Temple made no attempt of any kind towards authentication. Nor had Richard Carew, the first historian of an English county in 1602 when he named persons attaining 106, 112 and 130 (see below). William Sancroft, the deposed Archbishop of Canterbury, commented on the Hereford fable in the early 1690s as indicating that there had been a decline in resistance to mortality in the intervening years. But he likewise made no effort to check the credibility of the evidence. Claims to very long life were or had apparently become exempt from critical appreciation. The outcome, of course, was that Bacon, Harvey, Locke, Temple, Carew and so on, were hoodwinked by a series of charlatans who exploited the prestige attached to very great age, thus maintaining and extending the centenarian cult. Even the Royal Society, set up in the 1660s and acknowledged as the earliest body devoted to natural science, found it appropriate to accept into its official record centenarian descriptions, for example that of another notorious fraud, Henry Jenkins, pretending to be 169 years.(7)

No move towards their authentication by the Society seems to have been made and the cult stayed open to the marvels thought up by the unscrupulous to satisfy the thirst for sensationalism. We may see in such circumstances the origins of the attitude of our own media to wonderful stories of long life. There succeeded during the 18th century an era of virtually uncontrolled fantasy in the history of centenarianism. Learned men, many of them medical men, issued title after title listing names and including accounts of the established type, describing individuals who made themselves out to have reached what we now know to be impossible ages without apparently giving a thought to their validation. This literary movement was not confined to England and certainly flourished in Denmark, where Bolle Willum Luxdorph investigated and evaluated European longaevi rather as Bacon had done and mounted a systematic survey of long livers in 1780, discussed in a preceding volume of the present series.(8) Luxdorph made a collection of pictorial representations of his patriarchs and declared that he wanted facts, nor fairy tales, asking the clergy to check baptismal and burial records in their parish registers. But recent researchers have eliminated all but one of his forty nominated centenarians, and the cult survived in Denmark perhaps gained strength from his studies. Almost exactly the same statements can be made of Swedish claims to extreme survival up to the 1830s, at about which time the first genuine centenarians perhaps emerged in that country.(9)

It seems very likely that the growth and proliferation of the cult proceeded unchecked in most European countries during the period. In 1799 a work called Human Longevity appeared in Salisbury, England, the author being one James Easton. It consisted entirely in an annotated list of names, ages, places of residence and/or of decease of 1,712 persons who attained a century and upwards from AD 66 to AD 1799. Each name was accepted without confirmation, though the conventional features of social status and diet, both of them often very modest, were remarked upon, along with recall of historical events, procreative and occasional sexual details. The full rigmarole of cult items does not consistently appear in such sources, and some of them rarely or very rarely. Such was the cutting of a further set of teeth in very late life, conspicuous in another notorious example, the Countess of Desmond, the Tudor centenarian. The geographical scope was wide and included New England, for example Thomas Hapgood, aged 100, of Marlborough, dying in 1762 having had 9 children, 72 grandchildren, 208 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren. There was also John Jacob, 128, a deputy to the French Revolutionary Assembly of 1789 where he "was received with that respect which all wise nations pay to age". On his appearance the whole Assembly stood up: revolutionary rationalism had evidently not extended to the critique of longeavous claims. Fantasy went on embroidering its aetiology of prolonged survival so that J.H. Cohausen, a German, after dwelling on Jenkins, Parr and other stock phoney figures, declared that the "GREAT SECRET" to be revealed was that life could be prolonged, apparently for men only, by breathing in the breath of young women, a recipe typical of cult literature and one where the sexual theme becomes overt.(10)

Cohausen did make a gesture of a kind towards validation by trying to decide if schoolmasters teaching females outlived other males. It should not be forgotten that this was the age of Newton and of the sceptical Voltaire and that as the 18th century drew to the 19th, a second generation of European scientific naturalists like Haller (1708-77) and Buffon (1707-88) occupied themselves with the history of life and death, the noun "history" as in the phrase "the history of centenarianism", establishing itself as the title for the cult. But no progress towards the type of objectivity we are seeking seems to have appeared, though we cannot go into detail here. In fact it was the 1860s before a really definitive move was made in that direction and much later before the necessity of rigorous validation was universally accepted, if that is yet the case in our own day. These are some of the important earlier chronological facts which underwrite the claim that it was this particular area of biological and sociological analysis which was the last to become subject to what we think of as objective, scientific, rational enquiry.

The reasons for this astonishing lag constitute our present theme, and it must be evident by now that the one to which I myself attach importance is the establishment and development of the cult of centenarians based on positions inherited from earlier eras and firmly located in the emotional and even the intellectual needs of the European people of the time. These were still Christian centuries and, apart from the authority of the church, the psychic security of virtually everyone, those whom we classify as scientists along with everyone else, rested on the acceptance of Biblical revelation. When the breaking point came for the natural philosophers in an essay "On Longevity" contributed in February, 1872, to Fraser's Magazine, it was the Christian catechism which stuck in the throat of the author, Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), outstanding as a biologist and naturalist. Being required to believe in Methuselah having lived for 969 years was wholly irreconcilable with the now firmly established facts of human biology.

Owen was chief scientific patron to William Thoms (1803-1885) who has to be recognised as the protagonist, in the proper sense of that word, of the story of the emergence of the validation of centenarian claims. However, Thoms himself refers to others as his predecessors in the cause, such as Sir George Cornewall-Lewis, notorious for his scepticism in many directions. These people had evidently written in the proper scientific fashion in publications similar to Fraser's during the 1860's, especially in Notes and Queries, which was founded by Thoms. Other discussions of longevity were evidently going on elsewhere, in Canada for example.

Before we continue the list of reasons for the durability of the centenarian cult, we must pay attention to an important negative circumstance. It was not just ignorance of age and ages, of their own personal ages particularly, which allowed people at large to accept improbable facts about the extremely long life supposedly attained by people like themselves, or which gave some individuals the confidence to invent fanciful figures, or which persuaded those falsely alleged to be centenarians or super-centenarians (those older than 110) to believe in their own invented ages. The taxation and military recruitment practices of the classical world required individuals to know how old they were, and there is evidence that this was so in medieval times in Europe. The earliest surviving list of the members of an English-speaking community specifying ages, that for Ealing in Middlesex in 1599, population 307, gives a figure for every inhabitant, 70 years being the maximum, with a distribution by age much as might be expected. The same holds for the handful of other such early age listings as have been recovered for our country and for the much larger corpus from the Scandinavian countries, where Church and State required statistical information at regular intervals for much of the period we have discussed here.

There was the expected heaping at decades and half decades in these documents, a disposition to understate ages until the 60s, thereafter a pronounced tendency to overstate them, especially in relation to the marvellous birthday year 100. These obliquities continued into census times.(11) There is, however, no sign in these data of unbelievably long livers.

In relating data of this kind to our topic, it must be remembered that age heaping and age diminution or exaggeration do not imply ignorance of age, but rather a certain vagueness on the subject and willingness to prevaricate when convenient. Only one centenarian is to be found in pre-census age listings recovered for England:

"Ann Choyce 100 odd".

This unique entry is of considerable significance because it appears in the list of inhabitants written out in 1696 for the city of Lichfield by Gregory King, a heroic figure in the early history of social statistics.(12) King does not raise an eyebrow at the value given for the woman's years. But I have found no sign in all of his voluminous writings of a belief in improbably lengthy lives. Though he was given to some wild speculation on other topics, he was no subscriber to the centenarian cult. He evidently accepted the age evidence he used, evidence which implies that people at large knew their own ages.(13) It has to be accepted that to suppose otherwise is an error, frequently made by social historians, demographers and gerontologists.

On reflection it is logical enough that people should be aware of their own ages, those of the members of their families, and of their friends and neighbours, along with the prevailing rough numerical limits to these values, and yet to be willing to accept the fact that there could be cult figures, real if quite extraordinary, who attained the 110s, 130s, 150s and so on. They wanted to believe that this was so for the second of the reasons why the centenarian cult existed and persisted, the universal fear of extinction and the wild hope that at least someone, perhaps even they themselves, could escape it for long or very long stretches of time. The same could be said in respect of the third of the grounds for the centenarian cult, the thirst for the marvellous, the out-of-this-world, a virtually universal desire rather optimistically supposed to be reducible by education. Thomas Parr and Old Meg of Hereford were marvels to be wondered at, authentic miracles like miracles in the Scripture. These elements in the centenarian cult were responsible for the power which the very, very old exercised over all who came into contact with them or just heard or read about them, and this in its turn provided the opportunity for the unprincipled to invent the falsities and spread the misbeliefs. Doing these things added and still adds to their personal consequence, and naturally to those of the centenarians, dead or living, and to their relatives and connections. The greater the age and the greater the numbers of patriarchs and matriarchs, the higher the reward in status and notoriety, all within the current limits of credibility.

There are two more elements maintaining the cult, the magic of numbers, particular numbers, and the formidable obstacles in the way of checking centenarian claims, especially for long-dead individuals. The number 100 has peculiar force in such contexts, as will be confirmed by any cricket fan or by any journalist discussing a series of personal achievements. For it is a feature of attaining a century or super-century that the individual concerned is considered to have achieved it, to some extent anyway, by personal policy, by following through his or her "secret" of longevity. The magnetic effect of two digits becoming three is likewise familiar to every user of age evidence, so strong in causing exaggeration that until recently demographers omitted ages above 90 or even above 80 from analysis as being unreliable.(14)

Difficulties of authentication invited the myth makers to get what they could out of inventing centenarians and persuading innocent people to accept false ages which they could not check. This brings us back to the general theme of our book and to the circumstances under which validation became acceptable, along with the bearing such information has on the overarching questions. These are as follows: how long could people live in times past? did this value differ from that prevalent in our day? Crucial issues indeed for the biological as well as the demographic study of ageing. The centenarian cult could have a great deal to answer for.

But we must not exaggerate its effects or its substantiveness. Perhaps the set of beliefs and practices under review has been somewhat overdrawn and the outlines of historical development made too definite. Its origins are rather conjectural and it is not clear how widespread it was at any one time, how many versions of it may have existed, who accepted any of them and who, like Gregory King, seem to have been unaffected. A close comparison with a recognised cult such as the cult of witchcraft might be illuminating here since it also involved issues of belief and disbelief. But scepticism as to the reality of witches was expressed at much earlier dates than it was as to exceedingly long lifetimes. It is certainly true that there was scepticism about particular centenarian cases and this may have extended to rejection of the whole centenarian construct on the part of persons of critical outlook whose work is not yet known to scholars. There are, however, three persuasive grounds for accepting the cult as a historical reality: its purchase over the minds of very unlikely personalities, which we have gone over here; the outcry against the first attempts to dispose of the beliefs, to which we shall return; and the extraordinary persistence of the cult after the critical attack was mounted, even down to our own day.

Until her death on 4th August, 1997, at the age of 122 years, 5 months and 13 days, Mme Jeanne Calment of Arles in Southern France was the oldest person alive and perhaps the oldest person ever to have lived, in the judgment of those who have now developed expertise in the field. We may notice that such expertise could not guarantee anything like certainty on either point, for that would require unobtainable information. Nevertheless for several years previously Jeanne Calment bore the title "Doyenne de l'Humanité", the dean of humanity, the senior of us all. She had become a French national symbol and the effect of her departure was to raise the expectation that she should have a successor, that there would always be a recognised and legitimate oldest person in the world. As could have been anticipated, there was an immediate rush of claimants to the global title and cases were reported from many countries, most of which, in the hurried first journalistic accounts presented, displayed the now familiar characteristics of the centenarian cult.

As of the early months of 1998 the most likely pretender to the title seems to have been a Madame Meilleur, who attained the age of 117 years on 29th August 1997, in Kamouraska, a town in French Canada, that lady already on the 17th of that month having been proclaimed "Doyenne de l'Humanité" by the Montreal press. To be crowned as the true legitimate successor to Jeanne Calment, however, her case will have to pass all the tests of validation set out in this volume, a process which is already under way, though unfortunately she died 16th April 1998, at the age of 117 years and 7 months (see Desjardins' chapter on Marie Louise Meilleur). A few days before Madame Meilleur "the oldest man ever", Christian Mortensen of San Rafael, California, was mentioned in the world press as the pretender to the title since he passed his 115th birthday on 16th August 1997 (he died 25th April 1998). His case has already been authenticated by the methods set out in this book,(15) not as impressive a case as that of Jeanne Calment, but of an entirely superior order of reliability from those discussed above.

It could be said in one sense that the cult of centenarians is reaching its apotheosis in the last years of the 20th century, because individual records of extreme longevity can now be pointed to which are guaranteed to be as authentic as at present they can be made to be and they are being announced by the guarantors as world records. But as we shall see, it is still an open question as to whether this does imply the complete victory of scientific rationalism in this field of enquiry, or whether we can now give really reliable answers to questions about the maximum length of human life and its changes over time to the benefit of the study of the genetics and biology of human ageing. For it is an unmistakable characteristic of contemporary discussion of extreme age that it still contains cult elements, some of them in exaggerated form, traceable even amongst objective observers. The French title given to Calment and her supposed successor harks back to the intense pride of locality evident in the Hereford story. Nowadays it is national pride proclaiming global superiority, though the same newspaper which decorated Madame Meilleur with the world title some weeks later proclaimed a particular locality in Quebec as "La région de Chenaux, terre des centenaires".

The most conspicuous example of the persistence of the peculiarly-favoured-locality element of the centenarian cult has been the pretension to superiority of living conditions in the former Soviet Union in virtue of the reported, extensively and apparently officially reported, tendency of the area of that polity located in the Caucasus mountains to produce centenarians and super-centenarians. The claims made in respect of Abkhazia, Azerbaijan and Georgia recall Bacon's original propositions about mountains and their ambience. During the 1980s the peaks of the Andes in Ecuador, especially in Vilcabamba, provided even more extreme super-centenarian possibilities. Geographical variation in the incidence of long life is no doubt a reality but better general survival does not demonstrably raise the probability of extreme ages and systematic, sceptical analysis of these confidently asserted propositions has condemned them as entirely baseless.(16) The association of better survival with the "pure air" found on high ground is very reminiscent of statements made by exponents of the cult but it is entirely more likely to be due to the fact that in remote mountain regions registration is unreliable, giving the cult perpetrators their opportunity. Notwithstanding the repeated refutation of these propositions, consisting of course in rejection of their validation, where such is offered, it is still quite generally supposed even among informed people that long life localities are important to the study of ageing and exceptional survival a reality in them.

Very much more widespread, of course, is the appearance of elements of the traditional litany in relation to the long lived, now that those over 100 are numbered in their thousands in developed countries and in their tens of thousands in the larger ones. "Remarkable survivors" they are usually made out to be and good to look at; surprisingly acute faculties; notable historical reminiscences - who has not heard of Jeanne Calment and Vincent van Gogh? - and of beneficent good nature. The opportunity to cross-question a relative of one English super-centenarian, to all intents and purposes genuine, revealed this last characteristic to have been falsified by other witnesses, especially journalists. She had been a very wilful and unpleasant old lady. This is not all that surprising if it is literally true, and not an engaging fiction of the centenarian cult, that exceptional survival is associated with an iron will to go on living.

If it is found difficult to accept that the content of the centenarian cult could persist over the centuries to our own day, we may go back to the situation in England a couple of decades before moves towards realism were made and cite the discussion of great age in the National Census of 1851. Thomas Parr and Henry Jenkins appear again, and, sure enough, the Hereford Morris Dance quoted from Bacon, with clear signs of nascent scepticism, but no definite rejection. It will not be expected that we should survey the experience of Thoms during the 1860s and 70s in his head-on collision with the exponents of the centenarian cult. Nor can we go over the long-drawn-out engagements between such persons on the one hand and Thoms on the other, along with his supporters and followers, which continued into the 20th century. The contemporary school of studies of very long life represented in the present volume(17) emerged in the 1980s, a full century after the death of Thoms. When the story of that century comes to be told, it looks like being quite an interesting interlude of literary and scientific achievement.

It was not that rational activity finally took over in this field simply because disbelieving natural scientists exposed the credulity of men of letters. Thoms himself was exclusively a literary figure and of some standing in his time and later, a librarian and antiquarian scholar writing on folk literature. Amongst his opponents were persons of medical and scientific training who went on publishing books in the genre, to which James Easton's Human Longevity belonged. Moreover, there has recently occurred a controversy within the life sciences themselves as to whether it is really true that there is a characteristic ceiling to human life as biology has assumed for all animal species, and especially as to what that value is in years.(18) It is in my view a highly significant fact that the principal figure in the achievement of rational scepticism as to length of life which I have called the last area of enquiry to have become subject to it, should have been a humane scholar. It gives strong emphasis to the fact that in this particular matter life science is dependent on historical investigation and its techniques.

Although we can safely leave Thoms to tell his own story clearly and convincingly in the two editions of Human Longevity (1873 and 1879), we shall have to give attention to one or two aspects of it. The book, says the Dictionary of National Biography, "raised a storm of dismayed protest by its forcible contention that the authentic cases in which human life has been prolonged to 100 years have been extremely rare.... not even the histories of Jenkins, Parr or the Countess of Desmond satisfied his test of legal significance".(19) The writer evidently fails to share Thoms' scepticism completely and can even be said to favour the champions of the cult. But his statements about the dismay and opposition which the book encountered have to be accepted. It was as if a secure belief essential to the peace of mind both of the informed and of the uninformed had been threatened with undermining. "Let no one who has the slightest desire to live in peace and quietness", Thoms says in his preface of 1879 (p. 12) "be tempted under any circumstances to enter upon the chivalrous task of trying to correct a popular error".

The bland, almost insolent assurance of those who were against him, insisting on the entire reliability of statements which are nothing more than assertions, was what dismayed William Thoms, pointing as they do to the grip which the centenarian cult had on his contemporaries. They seem to have looked upon him as slightly touched in the head, "riding a favourite hobby to death" (p. 213). But much of what he advances in vindication of his work relates to the obstacles in the path of his research. "Those only who have undertaken such investigations can form the slightest idea what enquiries made into the truth of statements of this kind have to encounter" (p. 2). It was in response to such difficulties that he found himself forced to work out an entire system of validation for longevity claims, a system of great exactitude aptly designed to bring out the truth, which he protests was his single objective. This system constitutes in itself a claim to outstanding distinction in studies of this kind and is the basis of validity testing used here. But it is so rigorous that researchers in the 1990s have sometimes found it too demanding on data to observe in an area where the discovery of data is of prime significance.

The bewildering history of the history of longevity, therefore, presents us with a situation where we have had at our disposal for a century and more most of the means of arriving at what Thoms would call the truth about the topic, and so disposing of the centenarian cult. Yet a degree of irrational belief still exists and the cult cannot be pronounced extinct. This must be due, at least in part, to the fact that certainty is an unrealisable ideal in this particular enquiry. As has been said, there never can be sufficient data to identify with certainty the oldest person alive or who has ever lived. The only reply which could be given to a life scientist asking about the highest age ever attained would have to be in terms of an extremely restricted sample of humans over an almost derisory period of history, the figures being subject to all the difficulties which have been mentioned.

It is more encouraging with an average age at death of the longest livers, say those who have survived at least to 80 or 85, ages which, along with others, have themselves been proposed as limiting length of life of the human species. Establishing such a result would create a level above which the absolute maximum must lie, should it in fact exist. Such is the tendency of contemporary scholarship, with the rider that the level concerned has most certainly risen over the last two decades and is assumed by highly expert researchers to be rising still, at least in the West. A model of this kind quite evidently requires exact accuracy in ageing figures published by National Statistical Offices and also the application to all instances of extreme age of the strict criteria for validation laid down in the present volume.(20) This is particularly so in view of the lingering of elements of the cult of centenarians, especially in developing countries where their application is even more difficult than in the developed ones. That task is of an order more difficult again in relation to the extremely long lived in the past in any area of the world.(21)

This may be judged a rather disappointing result of an attempt to work out the history of longevity and the extremely late arrival of rational criticism in relation to it. Moreover, it is not a outcome which can be said to be free of perplexity. A reason for this may be sought in the ultimate character of the phenomenon towards which the validation of ages is directed. This is, in brief, the continuity of individual subjectivities over their life courses insofar as that continuity is attested by name-matching. The marked uncertainty of such processes is evident on the surface. The name of an individual passing through the transitions in the life course at which matchings have to be made may change. In Britain and the U.S.A. (though not consistently in Scotland) this always happens to women at marriage and it is a faint possibility at other points in a person's lifetime. The spelling of the name can also differ at entry or exit to and from employment and military or other careers which may form part of the life course in question. The practice of family reconstitution for the purposes of demographic history throws up all sorts of varied name forms requiring decision as to when any two are to be accepted as indicating the same individual. These inconsistencies occur, of course, with the relatives of the person under examination because the life courses of such relatives have to be reconstructed if an exact methodology such as Thoms recommended is to be followed. Over the whole set of exercises, moreover, looms the problem of missing entries, missing pages, or missing entire documents, common to all research of this kind. There is also the ticklish question of how many and which acceptable name matches are required to make up a convincing case for identity over a lifetime, thus validating the final attained age as securely attached to the subjectivity being pursued.

The complexity of such undertakings and the labour required is amply illustrated in the highly successful validation of the age claims of Jeanne Calment which has already been referred to. But for every outcome of this kind numbers of failures have to be expected and it would seem best to abandon the search for absolute certainty in age validation studies. A high, very high, or exceedingly high degree of probability has to be substituted for certainty. If those personalities from the past whom we have condemned for their indifference to validation had proceeded to do as they should have done, they would, like John Locke, have faced difficulties, frequently very formidable difficulties indeed.

We may conclude this essay, however, on an encouraging note. The implicit division which has been drawn here between a world of everyday practical good sense and that world where fantasy could enter and even predominate, to which we have consigned the centenarian cult, does, it seems to me, add to the probability that many, perhaps most of the records of persons attaining their late 80s, their 90s or even their 100s have been in fact genuine. Genuine here has to be taken to convey "accurate allowing for age exaggeration short of indulging the fantasy which characterises the centenarian cult". It is evident of course that such statements must lack conviction unless definitions are provided for critical expressions like "indulging in", definitions which I cannot attempt to supply. Taking the evidence as a whole, however, right back to the period when religious revelation was being spun out, and continuing down to that of critical validation, there is a strong suggestion that general expectation about ages to be attained was for the most part realistic. Although Christian revelation is responsible for impossible statistics such as those of Methuselah and the other patriarchs, it states in sober conviction that the life of man is 70 years, exceptionally 80, very exceptionally a few years greater. Here some such phrase as "for all practical purposes" has to be understood. This is consistent throughout the Christian Scriptures and as far as my knowledge goes for all other revelatory writings as well as for the total corpus of imaginative and record-keeping literature. The relative consistency of ages in census and pre-census listings, and in registers like those of the few English parishes, where at some dates people gave their own ages, provides, however, the most considerable ground for the generalisation ventured upon.(22)

There is a joker in the pack even here, because as everyone knows who deals with figures, even genuinely random figures, chance can make havoc of commonsense expectation. We need go no further than the contribution of Julia Hynes to the preceding book in the present series for an example.(23) That two poverty-stricken women should have lived out their lives of virtually incredible length in the same small, remote Welsh parish in the mid 18th century in a society where the restricted stock of surnames makes confident name-matching especially difficult, of course, is possible, although the chances against it have to be reckoned in colossal figures. Having to accept such amazingly unlikely eventualities happens to be peculiarly challenging to a writer who has recently been informed by a professional archivist that two of his ancestors in Hampshire in the early 19th century, man and wife, each attained the exact age of 100. Should it turn out, as is suggested, that the invocation of a centenarian cult is the way to thread through the perplexities of the history of longevity, that would in itself be a tingling paradox, considering that the name of Laslett has become a bye-word as to scepticism about claims to very long life.


Notes

1. Quoted from Peter Laslett, A Fresh Map of Life, 2nd edition, 1996, London, Weidenfield, pp. 137-8.
2. See Michel Allard, Victor Lèbre [physician] and Jean-Marie Robine, Les 120 ans de Jeanne Calment, doyenne de l'humanité, 1994, Paris, Cherche-midi, and for expert testimony Leonard Hayflick, How and Why we age, 1994, New York, Ballantine, pp. 147-9, etc.
3. First printed in Peter Laslett, The World we have lost, 1965, London, Methuen.
4. Though not apparently in English until 1847; see William J. Thoms, The Longevity of Man: its facts and its fictions, 2nd edition of a book which appeared in 1873, p. 308, for the translation.
5. Evinced also when he told John Aubrey of a woman "who bare a child every day for five days together".
6. See "Old Meg of Herefordshire", a pamphlet reprinted in David N. Klausner, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, 1990, Toronto University Press (reference to this and to Carew owed to Patrick Collinson).
7. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. XIX, No. 221, 1696, communicated by Dr Tancred Robinson, FRS.
8. See Thorkild Kjærgaard, Alleged Danish Centenarians before 1800 in Bernard Jeune and James W. Vaupel, eds. Exceptional Longevity from Prehistory to the Present, 1995, Odense Monographs on Population Aging 2.
9. Hans Lundström in Jeune and Vaupel (Eds.), p. 73.
10. Hermippus Redivivus: or the Sage's Triumph over Old Age and the Grave, London, J. Nourse, 1749, copy in the possession of the author.
11. For people's knowledge of their ages in pre-census times, see E.A.Wrigley, "Baptism coverage in Early Modern England: the Colyton area", Population Studies, 29, 2, 1975, pp. 299-316, and for late ages in the census period, George Alter, "Old age mortality, and age misreporting in the United States, 1900-1940", and its references. (Working Paper 24, University of Indiana, Institute for Research and Teaching, 1990).
12. See Richard Stone, Some British Empiricists in the Social Sciences, 1650-1900, 1997, Cambridge University Press, and Peter Laslett, "Gregory King, Thomas Malthus and the origins of English social realism", Population Studies, 39, 3, 1985, pp. 351-62, and its references.
13. Or knew them when prompted by members of the family or acquaintances, or particularly by the parson or official making out the listing.
14. Only since the establishment of the Kannisto/Thatcher data base at Odense University has there been a fund of tested data on these latest ages reliable enough to correct these omissions.
15. John Wilmoth et al. in The Gerontologist, 36, 6, 1996. See also the chapter of Skytthe et al. in this volume which includes new information on CM.
16. See for example Neil G. Bennett and L.K. Garson, Extraordinary longevity in the Soviet Union: fact or artefact, The Gerontologist, 26, 4, 1986, 358-61. This note covers the Vilcabamba claims as well.
17. "Centenarian studies" would be a more explicit title linking it with the historical story and placing it within the established context of publicity and grant-attracting purposes. But the possibility of confusion with the centenarian cult itself has to be reckoned with. An attempt to substitute age 98 for 100 as the point of entry into latest life has had to be given over as clumsy and inconvenient.
18. See the discussions in recent works on the biology of ageing, for example Robin Holliday, Understanding Ageing, Cambridge, 1995; Leonard Hayflick, How and Why we age, Ballantine Books, New York, 1994; and L.A. Gavrilov and N.S. Gavrilova, The Biology of the Human Life Span, Harwood, London, 1994. In the last book cited, it is stated that a fixed length of human life is no more than a dogma accepted because of confident repetition.
19. Entry written before 1900 by one Edward Irving Carlyle, apparently the only account of Thoms, though it contained no appreciation of his historical significance in studies of long life.
20. On the differential reliability of values for late life ages issued by Governmental Statistical Offices, some of them in the most advanced countries, see Väinö Kannisto's book Development of Oldest Old Mortality, 1950-1990 - Evidence from 28 developed countries, Odense Monographs on Population Aging 1, 1994, and his contributions in the present volume.
21. See Thatcher et al. The Force of Mortality at Ages 80 to 120. Odense Monographs on Population Aging 5, 1998 for a suggested model combining the statistical analysis of length of life with fixes on certain very high attained ages in the past going back for nearly a millenium, which he accepts as having a high probability of being accurate. Especially important is also Thatcher's The long-term pattern of adult mortality and the highest attained age. J.R. Statist. Soc. A, 1999.
22. Carew's discussion in relation to Cornwall (Survey, ed. F.E. Halliday, 1969, p. 135) is perhaps the one exception, somewhat disconcerting since his comment is the earliest in date. His claim that 80 or 90 years were ordinarily attained in his day is contrary to the findings of historical demography. Moreover he seems to imply that his super-centenarians were ordinary people.
23. J. Hynes, The Oldest-Old in Pre-Industrial Britain: Centenarians before 1800 - Fact or Fiction? in Jeune and Vaupel, 1995. Her two Clwyd cases survive all the validation tests to which they are susceptible. Her evidence from thousands of professional and educational records where self-reported ages are set out, bears out the statements made above about such data and its approximate reliability.

[ Home | Contents | Return to previous page ]


Max-Planck-Gesellschaft 2003