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Famous centenarians

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Erik’s grave post about Moses Brown features a tombstone with a very peculiar dating: neither the birth date or year are given, but Brown’s age at the time of his death is calculated down to the day, revealing that died just 17 days short of what would have been his 98th birthday.

I found this quite triggering, in that I started obsessing about the following question: Could I think of a famous American who lived prior to the 20th century who lived to at least 100 years of age? After a brief spasm of painful cogitation — it was and still is early in the day — I did what any sensible researcher in my position would do, which is turn to Wikipedia, which sure enough has many lists, sorted by occupation/avocation, of famous — or more precisely famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry, which was we shall see is an EXTREMELY liberal definition of fame — who have lived to seen their 100th birthday.

After reviewing many many hundreds of biographies, my inquiry landed on a much broader question, which is: How many famous people, on a worldwide basis, reached the age of 100 prior to the 20th century?

And the answer is: Almost nobody! (For the many biblical literalists in the LGM commenting community, no, the Bible does not count as a reliable source. Also Hobbits aren’t real so you can’t count Bilbo and the Old Took).

Here is, as far as I’ve been able to determine, a complete list of people from the annals of world history who have their own Wikipedia page — again this requires an extremely minimal and indeed sometimes fabricated level of fame or notoriety — and who reached the age of 100 prior to the 20th century:

John Buckler

Samuel Brassai

Jean-Frederic Waldeck

Sampson Blowers

Edward Holyoke  (American)

Mollie Sneden  (American)

Teresa Saporiti

Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres

Moses Montifiore

Richard McHeffy

Laban Ainsworth (American)

Ferdinand Ashmall

Henry Boehm (American)

Tenkai

Daniel Waldo (American)

Now I bet 97 out of 100 LGMers haven’t heard of a single person on this list, illustrating how loose the definition of “fame” being used here really is. Indeed the Americans on it consist of:

A charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who is probably on the list because he was the son of a Harvard president.

A woman who ran a ferry service in Palisades, New York, and was a Tory during the Revolutionary War.

A pastor who holds the unofficial record for the longest pastorate in American history, which really means he’s famous for living so long.

Another pastor who again is primarily famous for having lived long enough to preach a sermon at age 100.

And finally, the closest thing to an actually famous American who lived to be 100 prior to the 20th century, Daniel Waldo:

Daniel Waldo (September 10, 1762 – July 30, 1864)[1] was an American clergyman. Born in Windham, Connecticut, Waldo served in the American Revolutionary War and later became a missionary and clergyman. In 1856, at the age of 94, Waldo was named Chaplain of the House of Representatives.

It is recorded that he was in good health during his service to the House; he was also one of seven Revolutionary War veterans who, having survived into the age of photography, were featured in the 1864 book The Last Men of the Revolution (which gives many more details of his life). Waldo died in SyracuseNew York at the advanced age of 101, of injuries sustained after falling down a flight of stairs, and he was given a memorial in the House itself.

Pretty thin gruel there I’d say.

Now of course there’s a tremendous bias in these lists, which is that the degree of fame necessary to acquire a Wikipedia page if you lived in the 20th or 21st century is pretty minimal, so that’s why there are hundreds of “famous” centenarians who lived during these latter days. There are no doubt a goodly number of Americans, not to mention worldwide figures, more famous in their day than Edward Holyoke, Mollie Sneden etc. who for basically random reasons don’t happen to have a Wikipedia page about them.

But at this point, historically speaking, even any moderately famous, in the ordinary sense of the word, person has a Wikipedia page, so it’s still striking that there seem to have been basically no famous people in the history of the entire world to reach the age of 100 prior to the 20th century. Which illustrates, I think, how extraordinarily uncommon it was for people to reach that age prior to the advent of modern medicine (The widespread belief that low life expectancy in earlier eras was due almost exclusively to high infant and childhood mortality is wrong. Those things played a huge role, of course, but age-adjusted mortality rates among middle-aged and elderly adults were also much higher than they are today).

BTW there are nearly 100,000 centenarians in the USA right now, and 90,000 in Japan. The worldwide total is around 450,000. Henry Kissinger is about three and half months away from joining this group: Would he be the most famous 100-year old ever? I’ll leave that question to another intrepid obsessive or three.

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