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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 284–285.
PMCID: PMC2844269

Book Review

Mortal coil: a short history of living longer
Reviewed by James C Riley

David Boyd Haycock.
Mortal coil: a short history of living longer,  New Haven and London,  Yale University Press,  2008, pp.  xii, 308, illus., £18.99, $30.00 (hardback  978-0-300-11778-3). 

Four centuries ago in western Europe more people died in infancy than at any other age. Those who survived childhood could be expected to live to about today’s age of retirement, and a few to eighty or a bit more. Since then death before the age of sixty has become uncommon. The number of centenarians has surged; this year Japan deemed bonuses formerly paid to centenarians no longer affordable. We appear to be on the way to having significant numbers of people live to be 100, even 110, but probably not 120. Judged by an ability to perform physical and mental tasks, old age has receded. This past, projected forward, gives us hope of mentally and physically active years pushing through the eighties for most people.

In every age some branch of learning has imagined much longer lives. Today geneticists and geriatric researchers, and scholars from other fields impressed by their findings, are fashioning their own version of exceedingly long lives, ending at age 150 or even 200. Childhood will remain the same; old age measured by physical capabilities will be compressed; the physical and intellectual attributes of the middle years will be stretched out by decades, even by more than a century.

David Boyd Haycock gives us a history of prolongevity thinking during the last 400 years and of the sources of inspiration for such hopes. Deliberately, without irony, he links the modern expression of this idea, based on science, to past expressions based on the Old Testament and the belief that the patriarchs lived hundreds of years; on hope in the perfectibility of humankind, not just in morality but also in immortality; on the supposed long lives of some individuals who understood secrets about ageing; on the belief that disease would be conquered, leaving people to discover how long their natural lives could be.

Scholars and the curious among the general public will be delighted by this book. Haycock writes engagingly about an intriguing topic, and is always ready to re-seize the reader’s attention with a digression or an apt illustration. Indeed historians of science may want to use this book as a text. Haycock knows how to introduce scientists from Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, and Condorcet to Hayflick, Kirkwood, and Walford in ways that fix them in the mind. He knows how to present the serious and still today important parts of their thought even when it is embedded in language that seems merely fantastic, spiritual, credulous, or impenetrable. Undergraduates will discover useful things about how science proceeds when, armed by little more than curiosity, scientists probe the unknown.

In the early parts of this account, prolongevists experimented mostly on themselves. In the twentieth century they began to experiment on volunteers, some from their laboratories and some from the credulous public. To date, their work has had no specifiable effect on human longevity, except for maiming some lives and cutting others short. All the while prolongevists went ahead, always, it seems, lacking any sense of the history of the idea. Until now, when an historian sympathetic to these ideas has arrived.

Major steps forward in knowledge engender confidence that ageing can be understood and manipulated. Most of the time science demands that we sacrifice for these longer lives, for example, not just watching our diet but eating only a fraction of the recommended intake. The persuasive sign that something is afoot will probably lie in steps that extend cancer treatment from management to reversal, cure, or prevention. Haycock is not a sceptic; for him super long lives of perhaps 200 years are a plausible expectation that will be delivered by science now in progress.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press