Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/November 1881/The Duration of Human Life

First published in French as "Les grandes longévités" in Revue Scientifique de la France et de l’étranger, 6 August 1881.



CAN man reach and pass the age of a hundred years? is a question concerning which physiologists have different opinions. Buffon was the first one in France to raise the question of the extreme limit of human life. In his opinion, man, becoming adult at sixteen, ought to live to six times that age, or to ninety-six years. Having been called upon to account for the phenomenal ages attributed by the Bible to the patriarchs, he risked the following as an explanation: "Before the flood, the earth was less solid, less compact, than it is now. The law of gravitation had acted for only a little time; the productions of the globe had less consistency, and the body of man, being more supple, was more susceptible of extension. Being able to grow for a longer time, it should, in consequence, live for a longer time than now."

The German Heusler has suggested on the same point that the ancients did not divide time as we do. Previous to the age of Abraham, the year, among some people of the East, was only three months, or a season; so that they had a year of spring, one of summer, one of fall, and one of winter. The year was extended so as to consist of eight months after Abraham, and of twelve months after Joseph. Voltaire rejected the longevity assigned to the patriarchs of the Bible, but accepted without question the stories of the great ages attained by some men in India, where, he says, "it is not rare to see old men of one hundred and twenty years." The eminent French physiologist, Flourens, fixing the complete development of man at twenty years, teaches that he should live five times as long as it takes him to become an adult. According to this author, the moment of a completed development may be recognized by the fact of the junction of the bones with their apophyses. This junction takes place in horses at five years, and the horse does not live beyond twenty-five years; with the ox, at four years, and it does not live over twenty years; with the cat at eighteen months, and that animal rarely lives over ten years. With man, it is effected at twenty years, and he only exceptionally lives beyond one hundred years. The same physiologist admits, however, that human life may be exceptionally prolonged under certain conditions of comfort, sobriety, freedom from care, regularity of habits, and observance of the rules of hygiene; and he terminates his interesting study of the last point ("De la Longévité humaine") with the aphorism, "Man kills himself rather than dies."

Another physiologist, Dr. Huferand, wrote in 1841 in the "Journal de la Société de Statistique universelle": "There is nothing to prevent our considering the most remote terms which the known examples of longevity offer to us as forming the extreme limit of human life, or as the ideal of perfection, as a model, finally, of what the nature of man is capable of under favorable circumstances. Experience attests that one may live to one hundred and fifty and even to one hundred and sixty years. More than this, the autopsy of Thomas Parr, who died at one hundred and fifty-two years, which showed that all his viscera were perfectly sound, proves that he might have lived still longer, if the new kind of life that he led in consequence of a change in his conditions of existence had not determined a mortal plethora in him. There is, then, nothing improbable in the affirmation that the organization of man may endure and his vital force act during two centuries." Dr. Berthelot, adopting the doctrine that the duration of human life is proportioned to the time required for reaching maturity, cites as a well-known fact that the traveler Delahaye, who was born with a robust constitution and led a regular life, was not matured till long after the common time, married and became a father at seventy, and lived till he was a hundred and twenty years old.

The German physiologists have paid the greatest attention to this subject. Haller maintained that man might live to two hundred years. Hufeland, in his "Art of prolonging Life," teaches that the age of the world has to this day had no influence on the duration of human life, and that it may be prolonged to the length of the lives of the patriarchs computed according to the actual divisions of time; assuming that the animal lives eight times as long as it takes it to reach maturity, he calculates that man becoming an adult at twenty-five years, should live to be two hundred years old. This opinion is shared by Professor Karup, Dr. Buschner, of Darmstadt, and others who have written with reference to life insurance. Dr. Gardner, an English physiologist, has also published a work on the means of prolonging life, and has likewise adopted the doctrine of a ratio of the whole duration to the period required for full development. He believes, however, that the latter period is not fixed, but that it varies from eighteen to twenty-one years, and consequently the whole length of life should be between ninety and one hundred and five years. But he does not hesitate to affirm that the latter age has never been passed, if it has been reached. Sir George Cornewall Lewis is still more skeptical, and does not believe that the existence even of a centenarian can be demonstrated. Mr. J. Thomes, in "Notes and Queries," while he contests ultra-centenarianism as impossible, cites as entirely authentic the fact of a client of an English life-assurance company having died in 1879, at the proved age of one hundred and two years and some months. But this case, he adds, "is the only one which an open inquiry among the oldest life-assurance companies of England has brought to light." According to Mr. Thompson, however ("Curiosities of Longevity"), nothing decisive is involved in the extreme rarity of centenarians in the annals of insurance companies, for the highest ages are found in the lower classes of society, and notably among agriculturists, who do not insure their lives.

So far as to doctrines; we now come to examine the facts. In this we must exercise considerable restraint, for the data we have personally gathered and those which we have found in books, memoirs, medical dictionaries, etc., form a considerable collection, the reproduction of which would require a volume; we shall have to make a very limited choice from among the numerous documents.

The ancient Greek writers, especially Lucian, have left biographical notices concerning several centenarians of their country, and mention philosophers, moralists, poets, and artisans who reached and even passed one hundred years, among them the following: Solon, Thales, Pittacus, Epimedes, four of the seven wise men of Greece, lived more than a hundred years according to Lucian, who fixed the date of their death at about b. c. 600. Epimenides, poet and historian, according to Pliny, died at one hundred and fifty-four; Aristarchus, the tragic poet of Tegea in Arcadia, at one hundred years, about b. c. 460 (Lucian). The comic poet, Cratinus, of Athens, died at ninety-nine, b. c. 405. According to Valerius Maximus, Sophocles wrote his "Œdipus Tyrannus" when nearly a hundred years old, b. c. 405. The satirical poet Democritus died at one hundred and nine, b. c. 361; Gorgias, of Leontes, at one hundred and eight, b. c. 400. The great orator Isocrates perished from hunger at ninety-nine years, b. c. 338. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, died at the same age, b. c. 361. The philosopher Theophrastus died at one hundred and seven, about b. c. 254. Cleanthes, of Epirus, the celebrated disciple of Zeno, died nearly one hundred years old, b. c. 240. The historian, Hieronymus, of Rhodes, died at one hundred and four, b. c. 254. The immortal Galen died, like his great predecessor Hippocrates, almost a centenarian, b. c. 193. The philosopher Demonax, of Crete, perished from hunger at one hundred years, in the reign of Hadrian.

The Romans also had their centenarians, but the dates of their deaths are often not given. Juvenal was a hundred years old when he died, b. c. 120. Terentius Varro died at ninety-eight, b. c. 28. Quintus Fabius Maximus, augur for sixty-two years, died a centenarian, b. c. 107. Perennius Tutus died at Cornelia, at one hundred and eleven, a. d. 117.

Women also reached a very advanced age. It is notorious, for example, that Terentia, the divorced wife of Cicero, died at between one hundred and three and one hundred and twelve, after having been remarried three times, about b. c. 62. The poet Martial gives an epitaph in verse of a woman who died in his time at the fabulous age of two hundred years. The juggler Galeria practiced at her profession till she was a hundred years old, and died at one hundred and four, a. d. 9. According to Pliny, the comedian Luccia also played till the same age as Galeria, and died at one hundred and fifteen. Phlegon, in his book "De Rebus Mirabilibus" and "De Longævis," mentions the names and places of origin of one hundred and seventeen centenarians who died at different periods of the Roman Empire. On the taking of the census under Vespasian, a. d. 74, fifty-four of the inhabitants of the eighth administrative circumscription declared themselves to be one hundred years old, one hundred and fourteen between one hundred and one hundred and ten, two between one hundred and ten and one hundred and twenty-five, four between one hundred and twenty-five and one hundred and thirty, four between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and thirty-five, and three between one hundred and thirty-five and one hundred and forty. It is questionable whether these old persons may not have had some interest in claiming such great ages.

In modern times, we have for France documents relatively worthy of faith only from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Except in a small number of cases, where the ages have been authenticated by extracts from baptismal registers, these ages have no other guarantee of exactitude than the declarations of the interested parties and contemporaries.

Documents which we have before us—necessarily very incomplete—attribute to France, during the eighteenth century, a few more than a hundred centenarians. The majority of these were men, but women appear to have reached the most advanced ages. Agriculturists figure largely in the number, while industrial workers and inhabitants of cities are few among them. A certain degree of probability is given to the statements by the fact that the number of extraordinary ages claimed is very small. Instances of fecundity at advanced ages are not rare. Contemporaneous writers mention examples of rejuvenation which must be regarded as probably legendary, although they have been recorded without protestation in grave scientific works. A much more serious fact, and one that may be more reasonably admitted, is that of hereditary longevities, of which there are numerous examples. Most of these centenarians appear to have been temperate, only two instances of drunkards being known among them. Many of them were indefatigable walkers, traversing every day considerable distances to go to their work; and, according to the custom of the day, they all went to bed and rose early.

Among the most distinguished of them were the following, whose cases are given in the order of their dates: The diplomat De Vignancourt died at one hundred and three, in the exercise of his functions; the Marchioness of Luxemburg and the Maréchal d'Estrées died at one hundred; the three advocates, Larroque, of Agen; Coster, of Bordeaux; and William Grévin, of Pont l'Eveque, the first two at a hundred and eleven, and the last at a hundred and seven. The master-saddler Philip Herbelot died in 1714, at the verified age of one hundred and fourteen years. M. Lefébre de Lezeau still attended the councils of the king when a hundred years old, and died in 1715. Charles Colbert, brother of the great Minister, died at a hundred and four. Jacques Poncy, dean of the surgeons of Paris, performed operations in his hundredth year, and died at a hundred and two. The Count de Bethune, an old superior officer, died in Paris, at a hundred and five. Fontenelle died at a hundred, on the 9th of January, 1757. Dom Jean Mabillon, of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, died in Paris at a hundred and six, in 1778. Anne Marie Brideau died at a hundred, in the enjoyment of a tontine fund that brought her 55,625 livres of revenue in return for an outlay of three hundred livres. The Marchioness of Balestrin died at a hundred years, famous for her wit and her satirical verses. Françoise Pinel, a pauper, died at the Charité in Lyons, at a hundred and four, in January, 1754; and Marie Nauserine, another pauper, at the Hospital of Dinan, at a hundred and five, in March, 1756. The Baron de Lavaur died in 1764, at a hundred and five. Madame Marie Jahan, widow of M. de Villeneuve, lieutenant-general, died at a hundred and eight. Madame Lullin, having reached a hundred years, received a bouquet with a complimentary verse from Voltaire. The most advanced age seems to have been attained by a patriarch of the Jura, named Jacob, who was presented to the National Assembly on the 28th of October, 1789, at the age, as attested by his baptismal record, of one hundred and twenty years. Two invalids, one a hundred and six, the other a hundred and seven years old, dined with the First Consul on the tenth anniversary of the capture of the Bastile, July 14, 1799. Facts concerning centenarianism are still more abundant in the nineteenth century, for more attention has been paid to collecting and publishing them, especially since the athenticity of such cases has been disputed. Dr. François de Beaupin, who died at Chateaubriand in 1805, a hundred and seventeen years old, was married a second time at eighty, and had sixteen children by each marriage. Dr. Dufournet, who died at Paris in 1810, aged a hundred and ten, married a girl of twenty-six at eighty, by whom he had two children. On the occasion of the inauguration of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in 1822, Pierre Huet, who was called dean of the French army, and was a hundred and seventeen years old, was placed in a chair in front of the statue, and was decorated in the name of the King by the Prefect of the Seine. M. d'Ornois, of the Academy of Rouen, died at St. George's in 1834, at a hundred and five. Alexandre Mongeot, formerly Professor of Mathematics in the Polytechnic School, died at Passy in 1807, at a hundred and five, with all his faculties sound. Madame Foulon, sister of the unfortunate manufacturer of that name who was murdered by the populace in 1789, died in Paris at a hundred and four. A robust old man, M. Desquersonniéres, formerly commissary of the armies, was still living in Paris in 1842 at the authenticated age of a hundred and fourteen years; we do not know the date of his death. We were personally acquainted with M. Verron, who died in 1860 at the well-authenticated age of a hundred years. He had administered the commune of Montmartre for more than fifty years, and was still its mayor at the time of his death. Baron de Posant, former prefect, died in Paris in 1872, at a hundred and two; the Count Jean Frédéric de Waldeck on the 29th of November, 1875, at a hundred years and some months. The latter was in his youth a military and diplomatic figure of considerable importance; he published a book of travels in North and South America in 1838, and was a painter of considerable distinction. M. Duroy, a retired officer, being a hundred and four years old, attended the marriage of his great-granddaughters in 1877, sang, and opened the ball. M. Kennoux, Mayor of Plermeux-Gontier for fifty-three years, died in the same year at a hundred years and eight months. François Pelpel, a distiller of Paris, announced in the newspapers in 1878 that he had reached his one hundredth year, and was enjoying good health. Louis Etienne Mirvault, a former diplomat, who had served in the American war with Lafayette and Rochambeau, died at Ransay in the same year, aged a hundred and two years and six months. The celebrated physicist Becquerel was more than a hundred years old when he died.

Mr. Thompson, in his "Curiosities of Longevity," has related numerous cases of centenarianism in England. One of the most remarkable is that of a peasant who died near the middle of the seventeenth century at the hyperbolical age of one hundred and seventy-two years, and is said to have received the honor of being buried at Westminster. Another is that of Henry Jenkins, who is said to have lived to one hundred and seventy-five. Lord Bacon, of Verulam, in his book "De Vita et Morte," speaks of the deaths of contemporaries at the ages of one hundred and fifty and even of one hundred and sixty years, ages that were proved, he said, by judicial documents quite worthy of faith. The family of Thomas Parr, who died in his hundred and fifty-second year, incontestably enjoyed the privilege of a very great length of life. Parr left three grandsons, who died, one at one hundred and twenty-four, the second at one hundred and twenty-five, the third at one hundred and twenty-six years. William Parr died at Birmingham in 1770, one hundred and twenty years old, after having had forty-four children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren die. John Tice died in 1770, after a troubled life of one hundred and twenty-six years. Mr. Thompson cites also, as entirely worthy of faith, the death of one Gordon at Edinburgh in 1775, at the age of one hundred and thirty-one years. According to Dr. Isidore Bourdon, Greenwich Hospital had in 1806 one hundred and twenty centenarians, thirteen of whom were bachelors. A man applied at a life-insurance office in London, in 1875, for insurance, who said, in answer to questions, that on his father's side his grandfather had died at one hundred and ten and his grandmother at ninety-five, and the same ancestors on the mother's side at one hundred and at ninety-nine years; his mother, still living, was one hundred and five, and his father had died at one hundred and eight. A man who presented himself at the police-office of Doncaster in 1872, said that he was one hundred and eight years old, and had had twenty-two children, and that his wife had died in 1870 at ninety-nine. The Rev. Mr. Bradon, of Southampton, was congratulated by the Queen on the occasion of his hundredth birthday in 1877. The Rev. James Hingham died at Unst in February, 1879, aged one hundred and three. He had learned Hebrew and German after he was ninety; his father died at one hundred and his grandfather at one hundred and five. It would lengthen our list too much to quote from the records of centenarians in other countries. Taking the mean of the censuses from 1869 to 1872, we find that Europe (except Russia, Turkey, and a few small states in the south) had in a population of 212,940,376, 17,313,715 persons more than sixty, 79,850 more than ninety, and 3,108 more than one hundred years old; or one person in twelve over sixty, one in 2,669 over ninety, and one in 62,503 over a hundred. According to a table we have calculated for fifteen countries of Europe, more women than men attain an extreme old age, and the difference increases with the age. The greatest number of persons over sixty years of age is found in France, but not the greatest number of centenarians. Calculating upon the given age at death, we have found the percentage of those among the deceased who were ninety years old and more to be, in Great Britain, 9·73; in Sweden, 7·39; in France, 6·58: in Belgium; 6·07; in Switzerland, 6; in Holland, 4·47; in Italy, 3·76; in Bavaria, 3·42; in Prussia, 3·06; in Austria, 2·61.

As to whether the proportion of great longevities is increasing or diminishing, we have information only for France. During the fourteen years, from 1823 to 1837, the mean annual number of persons dying centenarians was 152, or one for 217,105 inhabitants; during the eight years, from 1852 to 1860, the mean was 111 in a population that had increased twenty per cent. But, although the great ages seem to have diminished, the mean length of life has very sensibly increased, and this is much better.

A number of centenarians have made their regimen known. Not-withstanding some rare examples to the contrary, temperance, sobriety, and regularity of habits, are of the first importance; then follow heredity, a relatively comfortable condition, freedom from strong and frequent emotions, residence as far as possible in the country, exercise, and a healthy and quiet business. The celebrated but humorous German physiologist, Hoffmann, summarizes the means of reaching a great age as follows: "Avoid excess in everything, respect old habits, even bad ones, breathe a pure air, adapt your food to your temperament, shun medicines and doctors, keep a quiet conscience, a gay heart, a contented mind."—Revue Scientifique.