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The Longevity of Famous People from Hammurabi to Einstein

The Longevity of Famous People from Hammurabi to Einstein

David de la Croix and Omar Licandro

In this publication in the Journal of Economic Growth, David de la Croix and Omar Licandro aim to document the long period in which human longevity, defined as the average lifespan of individuals of a given cohort, stagnate and identify the time at which it started to increase above its plateau mean. To this aim, the authors built a new dataset of around 300,000 famous people born between the 24th century BCE (Hammurabi, king of Babylonia, is among the first) and 1879 CE, the year of Albert Einstein's birth. Vital dates were taken from the Index Bio-bibliographicus Notorum Hominum (IBN), which also contains information on multiple individual characteristics, including place of birth and death, occupation, nationality, religion and gender, among others. This very comprehensive tool, covering 3000 biographical sources from all countries and historical periods, enables Omar Licandro and his co-author to go beyond the current state of knowledge and to provide a global picture.

The main contribution of this paper is fourfold. First, it documents, using a worldwide, long-running, consistent database, that there was no trend in adult longevity until the second half of the 17th century, longevity of famous people being at about 60 years during this period. This finding is important as it provides a reliable confirmation to conjectures that life expectancy was rather stable for most of human history and establishes the existence of a Malthusian epoch.

Second, it shows that permanent improvements in longevity preceded the Industrial Revolution by at least one century. The longevity of famous people started to steadily increase for generations born around 1650, reaching a total gain of around nine years for Einstein's cohort. The rise in longevity among the educated segment of society hence preceded industrialization, lending credence to the hypothesis that human capital may have played a significant role in the process of industrialization and the take-off to modern growth.

Third, using information about locations and occupations available in the database, Omar Licandro and his co-author also found that the increase in longevity did not occur only in the leading countries of the 17th-18th century, but almost everywhere in Europe, and was not dominated by mortality reductions in any particular occupation. Hence, the results found in the existing literature about some local groups of nobles generalize to the whole class of elite people, including writers, scientists, artists, master craftsmen, etc.

Fourth, the rise in longevity is associated primarily with the recanalization of age specific mortality rates, not with a change in the characteristic length of life as measured by the lifespan. This suggests that the rise in longevity we observe in the 17th-19th century does not reflect changes in the biological lifespan of humans but rather improvements in its environment.

Journal of Economic Growth, "The Longevity of Famous People from Hammurabi to Einstein", by David de la Croix and Omar Licandro


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Posted on Tuesday 15th December 2015

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