15 September 2009

The slimy secret to a long life

At the height of his career, Joseph-Guichard Duverney (1648-1730), a professor of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi in Paris and the “chief dissector” of the Paris Academy of Sciences, was famous for his public lectures and especially, dissections, not only of various animals, but also of humans that had sometimes been obtained by bribing the gravediggers.

Anita Guerrini’s short (but good enough) biography of him* includes the tidbit that after Duverney died at the age of 82, it was claimed that his health had been “undermined by long damp nights spent at the Jardin observing snails” (italics added).

Let’s stop for a moment and scrutinize that claim. According to the graph on this page, the life expectancy at birth in France in the early 1700s was below 30(!) years. Holy Cow! At 82, Duverney was >50 years beyond that.

If anything, long nights spent observing snails must have added years to Duverney’s life. I, for one, am following his example and hoping to even surpass in good health his 82 years.

*Anita Guerrini. 2009. Theatrical anatomy: Duverney in Paris, 1670–1720. Endeavour 33:7-11. pdf


Anonymous said...

I know you were making a little joke Aydin, but I just wanted to point out (for people who don't know any better) that a "life expectancy of 30 years" does not mean that the majority of people died at about age 30.

Life expectancy is almost always calculated from birth, and averaged out. In those days an extremely high percentage of the babies born did not live long at all: they died in infancy or early childhood from diseases which are now rather rare, thanks to routine inoculation. Also, a huge number of women died from complications in childbirth or soon after, from infections.

If you could remove from the statistic all of the myriad of babies and children who died so young, and the large number of mothers who died giving birth or from infections after giving birth, then really a reasonable number of people did actually make it into old age. You can see that to be true when you look in old graveyards, as you and I do so often!


Susan J. Hewitt


Yes, of course, the calculated life expectancy is the average. But, still, the proportion of men who reached their 80s must have been much smaller back then than it is now. Duverney's 82 years would indeed have been remarkable for that period considering all the odds against it.

Garden Lily said...

Some may live long in years, but never really live. "Long damp nights in at the Jardin observing snails" sounds like a pretty healthy pastime. Assuming he also had someone warm to come home to afterward, that could be a pretty balanced life.