In Search of the First Centenarians

by Bernard Jeune

It is amazing that most literature on longevity and centenarians is based on the hypothesis of a secret of longevity, which can be summarized in the following four allegations:

1. maximum life-span is fixed
2. longevity is genetically determined
3. centenarians have always existed
4. centenarians are qualitatively different.

        In my opinion each allegation is debatable. Some evidence that does not support them will be presented in this monograph. I have therefore proposed an alternative hypothesis, which I call the secret of tails (Jeune 1994). According to this hypothesis we can consider the proliferation of centenarians, which is a significant feature of actual demographic aging (Kannisto 1994, Vaupel and Jeune 1994), as a new historical phenomenon due to a demographic shift to the right of the extreme tail of the survivorship distribution, which is not due to any other secret than the factors involved in this shift to the right.

        As such the present proliferation of centenarians and the emergence of supercentenarians, which is the result of this proliferation, does not support the first allegation of the dominant hypothesis. To a certain degree this shift to the right of the extreme tail does not support the second allegation either. In the concept of "genetic determination" longevity is considered to be pre-programmed in the genes. It thereby eliminates any substantial impact of the environment. However, heritability of longevity has been estimated to be 0.2-0.3 and the heritability of frailty to be 0.5 in a Danish twin population (McGue et al. 1993, Herskind et al. 1994, Yashin and Iachine 1994). The interplay between genes and environment is better reflected in the concept of "genetic regulation", which is included in the adaptivity hypothesis (Franceschi et al. 1991). This hypothesis seems more in accordance with a secret of tails than a secret of longevity.

        Assuming a secret of longevity, centenarians might always have existed, independently of the size of the population and the level of mortality. Therefore, if this is not the case, it would be in favour of the alternative hypothesis. The same would be the case if some special traits distinctly characterized centenarians which is almost a tenet in centenarian research, and vice versa.

        The question - have centenarians always existed? - is therefore not only of interest to historians. It is also an important question for gerontologists. With reference to the well-known novel by Proust ("A la recherche du temps perdu"), I have proposed the title "In search of the first centenarians" for research which can contribute to the answering of this question. For the purpose of studying this question without any prejudice I have also deliberately claimed that supercentenarians did not exist before 1950 and centenarians not before 1800 in any population and in any period of world history (Jeune 1993, 1994).

        I shall not here present all my arguments for this working hypothesis. Let me only refer to the work of Vincent (1951), who analysed the most valid data on the mortality of oldest-old people he could get from the first half of this century (data from four European countries). On this basis he found it very improbable that even one individual "in the actual conditions" could reach an age beyond 110 years. Let me also refer to the work of Thoms (1873) in which he refuted most of the reported centenarians in England and Wales around 1870. Overreporting of age in this country with a long tradition of good vital statistics was in the late 1800s in fact not a minor problem but almost the rule.

        To start a very time-consuming historical, demographic work on the basis of the alternative hypothesis might be considered to be useless or even nonsense. However, regarding the impact of the old myths on longevity in scientific literature, including the strong preservation of Buffon's concept of a fixed maximum life-span in most introductions to gerontological textbooks, it seems justifiable to investigate this question. Such work could contribute further to a better understanding of the evolution of the interplay between genes and the environment. But, as it is evident from the contributions to this monograph, it is not an easy task to investigate whether supercentenarians have existed before 1950 or centenarians before 1800.

        Kannisto (1994) has recently shown that a proliferation of oldest-old people has taken place in recent decades. As shown in the following table, in developed countries with reliable data centenarians have increased twentyfold since 1960, and the proportion has increased from about 0.5 to nearly 5 per 100,000. This proliferation of centenarians is also visible in Denmark, as shown in the following figure.

As suggested by Skytthe and Jeune in this monograph it seems improbable that centenarians existed in Denmark before 1800 or at least exceptionally few existed before that date. Also in Sweden centenarians before that date seem to be very rare (Wilmoth and Lundström 1995 and Lundström in this monograph). However, the Danish population was very small at that time - less than 1 million. It reached 1 million some years after 1800.







Per million


Per million

 Austria 25 3.5 232 29.8
 Belgium ... ... 474 48.1
 Denmark 19 4.1 323 62.8
 England & Wales 531 11.6 3890 76.3
 Estonia ... ... 42 26.7
 Finland 11 2.5 141 28.3
 France 371 8.1 3853 67.9
 Germany, West 119 2.2 2528 40.0
 Iceland 3 17.0 17 66.7
 Ireland ... ... 87 24.8
 Italy 265 5.4 2047 35.5
 Japan 155 1.7 3126 25.3
 Netherlands 62 5.4 818 54.7
 New Zealand 18 7.6 198 59.2
 Norway 73 20.4 300 70.7
 Portugal ... ... 268 27.2
 Singapore ... ... 41 15.2
 Sweden 72 9.6 583 68.1
 Switzerland 29 5.4 338 50.4
 14 countries 1753 5.3 18394 45.1
 19 countries ... ... 19306 44.3

        Nevertheless, the reported number and proportion of centenarians in Denmark was much higher in the first half of the 1800s than later in the 1800s (see Skytthe and Jeune in this monograph), and much higher in Sweden in the later half of the 1700s than in the first half of the 1800s (see Lundström in this monograph). The reported decline of Danish centenarians in the 1800s could either be due to a dramatic deterioration of oldest-old mortality or be an artefact of substantial age-exaggeration. The latter explanation is the most plausible.

fig1s.gif (4637 bytes)

        The history of exceptional longevity reveals an even more dramatic decline. If we were to believe what is reported in ancient literature, it is obvious that the Deluge swept away the pluricentenarians. Ernest (1938) mentioned that the semi-divine persons of the Hindu Sagas lived hundred of thousands of years, and that on average each of ten rulers of Ancient Babylon lived about 43,000 years. The antediluvian patriarchs lived almost 1,000 years (Adam 930 years, Seth 912 years, Jared 962 years, Enoch 965 years, Lamech 777 years and the oldest: Methuselah 969 years). Noah, who survived the Deluge, reached the age of 950 years.

        Among the postdiluvian supercentenarians who are mentioned in Genesis the males from Noah to Abraham lived almost 300 years (Abraham himself reached the age of 275 years). And after Abraham the supercentenarians did not reach higher ages than famous reported supercentenarians from modern historic time: Sarah 127 years, Ismail 137 years, Isaac 180 years, Jacob 147 years, Joseph 110 years, Moses 120 years, Aaron 110 years.

        More realistic perhaps is the declaration in Psalm 90: "The days of our age are threescore years and ten, and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years....". This could very well have been true until recently. Although Lucian of Samosata in an epistle from the reign of Marcus Aurelius (about 150 A.D.) mentioned 27 kings, 17 philosophers, 3 historians and 4 literati as centenarians, Montagu (1994), who has written a paper on the length of life among the oldest Greeks and Romans mentioned in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, only regarded 10 males as "firmly" over 80 years (Thatcher, personal communication). Although in modern literature Gorgias of Leontium is often reported to be 107 years, none of those in whom Montagu believed were over 100 years old.

        Ernest (1938) stressed that "no one appears to have been sufficiently interested in longevity to compile a list of longlivers" from Lucian until the 16th century. I have not found anybody who has commented on the authenticity of such reported supercentenarian medieval saints as St. Mungo of Glagow (185 years) and St. Patrick of Ireland (122 years). Some interesting findings from the medieval period in Europe and China are presented in this monograph (see the contribution by Boldsen and by Zhao). Although, these authors draw different conclusions on the possibilities of centenarians, nothing in their findings suggests that ages higher than 110 years (supercentenarian) were possible in the medieval period.

        However, even scholars as respected as Bacon and Haller believed in some of these supercentenarians from the ancient and medieval periods. Haller mentioned more than a thousand centenarians and more than hundred supercentenarians in the last volume of his "Elementa physiologiae corporis humani" (1760). He believed that it would be possible to reach the age of 200 years.

        In the same period Buffon (1760/1835) stated that "l'homme qui ne meurt point de maladies accidentelles vit partout quatre-vingt-dix ou cent ans" ("the man who does not die of incidental diseases reaches everywhere the age of ninety or one hundred years"). He introduced the concept of a fixed maximum life-span depending on the duration of growth, which was specific for each species, and stressed that nothing could change what he called "the fixed laws which regulate the number of years". However, this new concept had no impact on the torrent of catalogues on longlivers which appeared in the late 1700s and especially in the 1800s. The Danish gallery by Luxdorph is presented in this monograph (Kjærgaard).

        For many years the most famous and venerated supercentenarians have been largely accepted as supercentenarians. The story of some of these mostly poor persons like Parr and Drakenberg turned into legends. Many countries have had their famous centenarians. In England, besides "old, old, very old Parr", there were Catherine of Desmonde and Henry Jenkins. In Denmark, besides the famous seaman Drakenberg, there was Peter Henricson, who was known from the well-preserved epitaphe in the church of a small town, Møgeltønder, and Live Livsdatter, who was the servant of the Danish scientist Thycho Brahe. In Sweden there was Jon Andersson who even surpassed the age of Drakenberg. In USA there was Joice Heth, who was the nurse of George Washington, Yarrow Mamout, who was known as the "chukling old negro", Christopher Vanpool, who was known as "the durable Dutchman" and Samuel Mecutcheon, who was known as the oldest citizen of Philadelphia. John and Sarah Rovin are the most famous Hungarian supercentenarians. The Canadian supercentenarian, Pierre Joubert, is the only one in


NEWTON, Thomas: The Worthye Books of Old Age (London 1569).
BACON, Francis (1561-1626): The History of Life and Death (London, 1638).
COMMIERS, C de.: La médicine universelle, ou l'art de se conserver en santé et de prolonger la vie (Paris 1687).
LONGEVILLE, Harcouët de.: Histoire des personnes qui ont vécu plusieurs siècles (Paris 1715).
ANONYMOUS: Almanach de la Viellesse, ou Notice de tous ceux qui ont vécu cent ans ou plus (Paris 1756).
LOTTIN, Augustin-Martin: Almanach des centenaires (10 vol., Paris, 1764-1771)
HALLER, Albrecht von (1708-1777): Elementa physiologiae corporis humani (In the last of 8 volumes, 1757-1760).
LUXDORPH, Bolle Willum (1716-1788): Catalogus longaevorum (Copenhagen, 1780).
EASTON, James: Human Longevity (Salisbury, 1799).
SCHROETER, J.S.: Das Alter und die untrüglichen Mittel alt zu werden, nebst 11790 Beispielen von Personen, welsche 80 bis 190 Jahre alt geworden sind (Berlin, 1805).
SINCLAIR, Sir John: The Code on Health and Longevity (Edinburgh, 1807).
RUSH, Benjamin: Medical Inquiries and Observations on Old Age (Vol. 2, Philadelphia, 1809)
TAYLOR, J.: Annals of Health and Long Life with Biographical Anecdotes of 140 Persons who Attained Extreme Old Age (London, 1818).
NEUMAIR, G.A.G.: Die sichersten Mittel ein sehr hohes Alter zu erreichen, mit mehr als 7000 Beispielen von Personen, die...bis 360 Hahre alt geworden sind (Leipzig, 1822).
ANONYMOUS: An Account of Persons Remarkable for their Health and Longevity (London, 1829).
LEJONCOURT, Charles: Galeries des Centenaires, anciens et modernes (Paris, 1842).
VAN OVEN, B.: On the Decline of Life and Health and Disease, Being an Attempt to Investigate the Causes of Longevity (London, 1853).
BAILEY, T.: Records of Longevity (London, 1857).
WATSON, J.F.: Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time (Philadelphia, 1857)
WARE, J.R.: Famous Centenarians. Records of 200 Persons who Have Lived to be 100 Years and upwards (London, 1885).

which Young (1905) and later Bowermann (1939) believed.

        Not until the second half of the 1800s did Thoms and others try to assess what was fact and what fiction. Thoms (1873, 2nd ed. 1878) not only refuted such famous reputed supercentenarians as Catherine of Desmonde, Thomas Parr and Henry Jenkins, but he also thoroughly examined reported centenarians from his own time. About 90% reported to be centenarians in the newspapers during the period 1868-72 could be refuted.


Catherine of Desmonde 1464-1604 140 years
Peter Henricson 1465-1592 127 years
Thomas Parr 1483-1635 152 years
Henry Jenkins 1501-1670 169 years
Petracz Czartan 1539-1724 185 years
Live Livsdatter 1575-1698 123 years
Jon Andersson 1582-1729 147 years
Christian Jacobsen Drakenberg 1626-1772 146 years
Joice Heth 1684®1845 >161 years
Yarrow Mamout 1685®1819 >134 years
Pierre Joubert 1701-1814 113 years
Christopher Vanpool 1754-1866 112 years
Samuel Mecutcheon 1767-1889 122 years
John and Sarah Rovin 172/164 years

        Ernest (1938) mentioned that a similar high proportion of reported centenarians from the same period could not be verified in some statistical investigations from Canada, Bavaria and Prussia. Among 1756 reported centenarians at a census in Bulgaria at the begining of this century only 51 could be verified (Vischer 1945). Age-exaggeration was in fact not a minor problem around 1900 in most of Europe. Today the same is the case for most countries in the world, especially in countries with a high proportion of illiteracy. It seems that the lower life expectancy is the higher is the reported proportion of centenarians and the reported record of longevity. Age-exaggeration has been documented in the new tales of high proportions of centenarians in certain mountain areas, like Abkhasia, Kashmir and Vilcabamba in the Andes. Systematic age-exaggeration in an illiterate population began already from the age of 70 and the exaggeration increased with age to over 30 years (Mazess and Forman 1979).

        As late as in the 1970s a new era of alleged 'oldest in the world' emerged. Many of them have been described in newspapers, in the Guiness Book of Records, and even in scientific journals, like the 168-year-old Shirali Muslimov from the ex-Soviet Union, the 137-year-old Charlie Smith from USA, the 127-year-old Miguel Carpio Mendieta from Vilcabamba (Ecuador), the 120-year-old Shigechiyo Izumi from Japan etc. They are typically all men.

        However, in well-documented centenarian studies from the 1980's in Europe these extreme ages were never reached. The oldest well-documented person seems to be Jeanne Calment from Arles in France, who was investigated as 115 years old in the French centenarian study (Allard 1991). She is now 120 years old and certainly the best documented supercentenarian until now (Allard et al. 1994). The oldest woman in the Nordic countries seems to have been Hulda Johansson, who recently died at the age of 112. The first supercentenarian has just emerged in Denmark in November 1994, a 110-year-old woman from Jutland.

        The oldest man may have been John Evans from England who died in 1990 at the age of 112 years and 9 months (Thatcher 1992). In the near future he can be surpassed by the Danish-born American, Christian Mortensen, who has the possibility of reaching the age of 113 in August 1995. In cooperation with John Wilmoth, who has done several interviews with him at a Danish nursing home near San Francisco, where he lives, Skytthe and I have collected a lot of evidence that he really is 112 years old.

        Supercentenarians in fact seem to be a very new phenomenon, which first emerged among women and some years later among men. It seems unlikely that the number of supercentenarians living in the world today is beyond 100 and maybe it is only around 50. It is therefore not surprising that more sceptical demographers, like Vincent (1951) in the fifties and Kannisto until recently, did not believe in ages higher than 110 years in the given conditions (Vincent: "en l'état actuel des choses"). The question is therefore when and where this age was surpassed.

        Young included no supercentenarians in whom he believed in the first edition of his book "On Centenarians" (1899), but two in the second edition (1905), and later Bowermann (1939) added four believable ones to these two, all in all six supercentenarians. The authenticity of these possible supercentenarians from before 1950 are now under investigation in Peter Laslett's group on "Maximal Length of Life" at the University of Cambridge. Some of them cannot be further investigated because the original documents have disappeared (this is for example the case with the above-mentioned Pierre Joubert), but Julia Hynes has done a thorough investigation of the Irish lady Katherine Plunket who died in 1932. Although the evidence is not conclusive if all the criteria of Thoms are applied, it cannot be refuted that she died at the age of 111.

        Nevertheless, the emergence - or reemergence - of supercentenarians seems to be a very new phenomenon, made possible by the proliferation of centenarians in recent years. It therefore seems obvious to search for an explanation for this new demographic development. Is it mainly due to the number of births hundred years ago, to the decline in infant mortality and to a lesser degree also to the decline in adult mortality? This is the conventional wisdom.

        Few imagine, however, that a decline in old age mortality has had any impact on this new development. It has almost been a tenet that mortality among oldest-old did not change, at least until recently as demonstrated by Kannisto (1994). However, this tenet is based on estimated mortality rates from reported data from the past century and the first half of this century, which may be distorted due to age-exaggeration.

        Vaupel and Jeune (1994, see also this monograph) have shown that about 2/3 or more of the proliferation of centenarians is due to improved survival from age 80 to 100. The chance of enduring from birth to age 100 over the course of human existence may have risen from one in several million to two in hundred. If, as stated by Vaupel and Jeune in this monograph, "the chance of surviving to the age 100 is about 1 in 20 million when life expectancy is 20 and about 1 in 80,000 when life expectancy is 40 (a level not reached in Western Europe until the early 19th century), then centenarians must have been exceedingly rare in most countries before the modern era".

        Furthermore, if supercentenarians first emerged when life expectancy was about 70 and the size of the world population was over 4 billion, why should centenarians have existed when life expectancy was below 40 and world population below 1 billion, especially in historical periods with no evidence of improvement in old age mortality, because nursing and treatment of elderly people were very poor and the life-styles of elderly people did not change?

        At this stage of the history of longevity, I therefore find it more fruitful to discuss the conditions of falsification than to corroborate what may be a false tenet. As one says in court: "Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit non qui negat". Like Vincent, we do not have to believe it, "jusqu'a preuve contraire" and this has to be found in Thoms' "species of evidence".

        However, other authors in this monograph have found evidence of true centenarians before this era. Hynes thoroughly points out "a range of difficulties which might be impossible to overcome". She therefore argues that Thoms' criteria are too strict in searching for true centenarians before 1800. This is also the reason why Skytthe and Jeune propose four levels of evidence, but some of the centenarians that Hynes accepts do not fulfil the lowest levels (D and C). Therefore, if birth and death certificates are lacking some of the evidence of life history that Hynes proposes should be incorporated in the lowest level in a strict way.

        On the other hand, if birth and death certificates exist as they did in the Norwegian case investigated by Kjærgaard, but only few pieces of evidence of life history and family reconstruction are collected (level B and A), it cannot be concluded with "no doubt at all" that the same name in the birth and the death certificate in fact refers to the same person, especially when information is lacking from a thirty year period from the age of 71 years.

        In the documentation of supercentenarians today we certainly also need a differentiation of the highest level (A), which concerns family reconstruction. The family reconstruction of Jeanne Calment is extremely high, because her family had lived for at least three centuries in Arles, which has an archive going back to the 17th century. The family reconstruction of Christian Mortensen is high, but does not reach the level of Jeanne Calment. In the case of Kathrine Plunket the level of family reconstruction is low, but it seems to be extremely difficult to get any further.

        Totally different criteria are used in the presentation by Zhao on the Chinese Wang Genealogy, relying on other data sources than parish registers, including genealogical data using the traditional Chinese calendar, the "Nian Hao"-system, and the importance of the time of birth for a person's destiny. It could therefore be recommended that different criteria for different periods and different places be established.

        Zhao also uses a demographic explanation in his arguments for the existence of centenarians before the modern era. On the basis of some historical data on old age mortality Thatcher estimates the probability of survival from age 0 to 100 for a life table cohort born in 1700. This estimate comes to about 1 in 100,000 which is consistent with the estimates of Zhao and Vaupel and Jeune.

        The final contribution, by Wilmoth, is a comprehensive analysis based on a set of different assumptions, which has the great advantage of delimiting the problem. Assuming a remaining life expectancy at age 50 of about 14 years, he concludes that the emergence of centenarians "probably occurred during the time of the first great human civilizations". Wilmoth emphasizes, however, that this conclusion "is very sensitive to our assumption about the average level" of life expectancy at age 50 in the pre-industrial period. If the remaining life expectancy at this age was 12 years or lower, as Boldsen suggests it was in Medieval Denmark, centenarians seem improbable prior to the industrial period.

        This monograph begins with the contribution by Boldsen and Paine on longevity from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages based on analyses of skeleton materials. In the last chapter Wilmoth reviews the literature on population size, mortality level and life expectancy during world history. His array of alternative assumptions and estimates for different historical periods closes the monograph with a frame for further research on this topic.

        Finally, I want to illustrate that the tail hypothesis was already expressed in 1865 by Lewis Caroll. The following tail poem "Fury and the mouse" from "Alice in Wonderland" was written 50 years before the French poet, Appollinaire, wrote his "calligrammes" and the French surrealists considered the author of this tail poem a precursor:

"You promised me to tell me your history, you know," said Alice...

"Mine is a long and a sad tale!" said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing.

"It is a long tail, certainly", said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail; "but why do you call it sad?"

And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking, so that her idea of the tale was something like this: (see poem overleaf).

"You are not attending!" said the Mouse to Alice severely. "What are you thinking of?"

"I beg your pardon", said Alice very humbly: "you had got to the fifth bend I think?"

"I had not!" cried the Mouse angrily.

"A knot!" said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. "Oh, do let me help to undo it!"

"I shall do nothing of the sort," said the Mouse, getting up and walking away. "You insult me by talking such nonsense!".

        The poem is not merely a tale but a tale in a tail. I think that it is a good model for exploring the question of longevity. It is clear from this that we do not have to find a special unchanging secret of longevity but we have to keep on puzzling about the tail and its secret in a changing world.


                                                                      Fury said to a
                                                               mouse, that he
                                                           met in the
                                                    "Let us
                                                  both go
                                                    to law:
                                                        I will
                                                             you. Come, I'll
                                                                 take no denial.
                                                                    We must
                                                                 have a trial:
                                                             For really
                                                           this morning
                                                        I've nothing
                                                    to do".
                                                  Said the
                                                   mouse to the
                                                       cur, "Such a
                                                                  dear Sir,
                                                                     With no
                                                                  jury or
                                                       would be
                                                  our breath".
                                                 I'll be judge
                                              I'll be jury",
                                                       old Fury
                                                             try the


Updated by V. Castanova,  March 2000