William Harvey dissecting the body of Thomas Parr. Oil painting, ca. 1900. / Wellcome Images (Wellcome Trust) via Wikimedia Commons
By Dolly Stolze / 01.02.2018
On August 4, 1997, newspapers around the world announced the death of Jeanne Louise Calment, who died her home in Arles, France. She was not a political leader, a scientist, or a famous actress. Jean had the world’s longest (recorded) lifespan of 122 years when she passed. The French woman was considered a supercentenarian, a person who lives to be at least 110 years old.
Lifespans that exceed 110 years are very rare, occurring only one in 1,000 people living to 100-years-old. Although there have been plenty of people throughout history who have claimed to have lived more than 110 years, historians rely on objective documentation, like birth and church records, to substantiate their statements. One of the most disputed stories of extreme age belongs to a 17th century man named Thomas Parr, who claimed to be 152 years old at the time of his death.
Etching by George Powle (1764–1771) after Rubens; Drypoint by George Powle (fl. 1764–1771) after Peter Paul Rubens. Image credit: Wikipedia
Old Tom Parr experienced some celebrity as a medical oddity at the court of King Charles I in 1635. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much time to enjoy is fame because he died a shortly after arriving in London. The king was so curious about what could have finally killed a man of such advanced age that he instructed his physician, Dr. William Harvey, to dissect Tom Parr’s corpse. Harvey later published the autopsy report as part of a larger book. The document is pretty mundane and does nothing to validate Parr’s age but does explain the cause of his death…more on that later.
Most of what historians know about the life of Tom Parr comes from John Taylor’s pamphlet, published the year of Parr’s death, “The old, old, very old man or the age and very long life of Thomas Parr.” Parr lived most of his life as a farm laborer in the county of Shropshire, and married his first wife when he was 80 years old. Though the couple had two children, neither of them survived. When he was 105 years old, he was forced to do penance for adultery in a “sheet of bastardy” at his parish church. After his first wife died, he married his second when he was 122 years old.
Old Parr’s Cottage at Winnington, Shropshire. Image credit: Shropshire Museums via Wikipedia.
Parr, at some point, started to tell his neighbors that he was born in 1483. It’s not clear what proof he had or what he said to make his story believable. There are no written documents to verify his birth date because birth records were not kept in England until the 19th century. Before this, evidence of live births was dependent on church record-keeping for baptisms and weddings. Since the lifespan of an English person in the 17th century was about 40 years old, there was likely no one alive from Parr’s generation to either support or dispute his claim because he would have outlived at least two generations of his neighbors.
In 1635, the people of Shropshire found Parr’s story convincing enough that rumors spread throughout the area about a man who was 152 years old. That same year, the Earl of Arundel, Thomas Howard, heard the tales about a man of incredible age when he traveled to Shropshire to visit one of his estates.
It probably wasn’t hard for the earl to believe the elderly farm hand was ancient because of his withered face, gray beard, blindness, and inability to walk on his own. Thomas Howard was so convinced of the old man’s age that he took Parr back with him to London to visit the court of King Charles I.
The grizzled man was an overnight celebrity among the nobles in London. He met the king, had his portrait painted by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, and consumed the finest foods and wines.
This lifestyle maybe took its toll on Parr because he became gravely ill a couple weeks after his arrival. King Charles I had his personal physician, Dr. William Harvey, examine and treat him. Parr complained that he had a difficult time breathing and Harvey noted that his face had a bluish/red color. When Tom Parr died on November 13, 1635, the king directed Harvey to conduct a post-mortem examination.
Dr. William Harvey, the first known physician to describe the circulation of blood throughout the human body, performed the autopsy in the presence of other physicians. Harvey’s records from the examination were published in 1669 in John Betts’ book De Ortu et Natura Sanguinis, in a sectioned titled “Anatomical Examination of the Body of Thomas Parr, aged 152 years.”
There seemed to be little doubt that Parr died of anything other than natural causes, it was just a question of which of his organs failed him. According to Jole Shackelford, assistant professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota and author of William Harvey and the Mechanics of the Heart, Harvey’s pre and post-mortem observations, Parr’s reddish face and blood in his lungs, led him to conclude that Parr died fromsuffocation caused by pneumonia.
Dr. Harvey attributed the cause of death to a sudden change “in the non-naturals, the chief mischief being connected with the change of air, which through the whole course of life had been inhaled of perfect purity-light, cool, and mobile whereby the praecordia and lungs were more freely ventilated and cooled.” Meaning that the fetid London air contributed to his death.
There was little controversy regarding Parr’s age at the time of this death. For example, the Harvey notes his self-reported age in the title of the document and within the report itself. But if Harvey had access to modern forensic methods, he might have been able to objectively determine Parr’s age.
Morphological methods used by forensic dentists and anthropologists can pretty accurately estimate age by observing tooth eruption and bone growth in juveniles and young adults (people in their 20’s). These methods, however, become less accurate the older a person gets, often with an error of ± 10 years. Forensic scientists have been able to more precisely determine age using radiocarbon and racemization analyses.
Many historians believe that Tom Parr was less than one hundred. In An Illustrated History of Health and Fitness, from Pre-History to our Post-Modern World, Roy J. Shephard writes that “Some historians suggest that Parr’s records were confused with those of his grandfather, putting Parr’s death at a more reasonable age between 70 and 100 years.”
King Charles I arranged for Tom Parr to be buried in the south transept at Westminster Abbey.
The following inscription marks his crypt:
THO: PARR OF YE COUNTY OF SALLOP. BORNE
IN AD: 1483. HE LIVED IN YE REIGNES OF TEN
PRINCES VIZ: K.ED.4. K.ED.5. K.RICH.3.
K.HEN.7. K.HEN.8. K.EDW.6. Q.MA. Q.ELIZ
K.JA. & K. CHARLES. AGED 152 YEARES.& WAS BURYED HERE NOVEMB. 15. 1635.
A portrait of Parr hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Originally published by Strange Remains under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.