How we measure death: from gruesome plague beginnings to the modern day and beyond

26 March 2014

The Royal Society and Institute and Faculty of Actuaries have opened a joint exhibition on the length of human life called Life Beyond Measure: A Short History of Longevity.

As plague spread across England in the 1660s elderly women, known as searchers, would pick over the corpses of its victims to record causes of death. The searchers of the dead reported their findings back to their local parishes who published Bills of Mortality to warn that new pandemics of lethal plague, which could claim thousands of lives, were fast approaching.

This gory tale was the beginning of official record keeping on human death; the subject of a new exhibition now open at the Royal Society. Life Beyond Measure: A Short History of Longevity delves into four centuries of records to uncover how life and death have been recorded through the ages.

Actuaries have long collected information on length of life and causes of deaths, information that they use to advise governments on matters like social policy and businesses that offer pensions, life insurance and healthcare. Life Beyond Measure: A Short History of Longevity explores the archives of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) and the Royal Society, illustrating how scientists started to understand not only how long people live but why some live longer than others.

The earliest record on display at the new exhibition dates back to the dark days of the Great Plague pandemic of 1665. The aptly titled London’s Dreadful Visitation records deaths during a week of the plague which during 1665 and 1666 claimed 15% of London’s population. Records of the time kept track of causes of deaths including ‘Frighted’, ‘Grief’ and even ‘Winde’.

The exhibition explores the longevity of human life and probes 400 years of archives to find out how long people could expect to live in different eras and why we now live longer than any generation before us.

Today most newborn babies in Britain are expected to live beyond 100. The exhibition’s curators question what challenges may affect the increasing longevity of the next generation.

“Since the actuarial profession was first constituted in 1848, actuarial science has been at the forefront of measuring life. Knowing how long we’re expected to live and how healthy our lives are likely to be are important measures in shaping social policy.” says David Hare, President of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.

“This exhibition casts a spotlight on longevity, what was, what is and some thoughts on what yet may be and the IFoA is proud to host it in collaboration with the Royal Society.”