Intended for healthcare professionals

The Quality Of Life

How to live forever: lessons of history

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 23 December 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1580
  1. Steven Shapin, professora,
  2. Christopher Martyn (, clinical scientistb
  1. a. Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0533, USA
  2. b. Medical Research Council Environmental Epidemiology Unit, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton SO16 6YD
  1. Correspondence to: C Martyn

Living forever is much in the news these days. Scarcely a week goes by without the papers, the television, and the internet holding out new and plausible hopes that the matter is now well in hand, a technical breakthrough away. Maybe you can get your telomere shrinkage reversed.1 Perhaps it's just a question of taking control of p21 gene expression.2 Possibly stem cell transplantation will do the trick.3 Politicians set their seal of approval on the promises of biomedical expertise. On the day that the decoding of the human genome was officially announced 85% complete, President Clinton declared “Our children's children may know cancer only as a constellation in the night sky.”

But living forever has always been in the news. The expectations that we are now encouraged to have of biomedical expertise have been experienced many times before.

Summary points

Promises have been made about living forever since ancient times

Most historical theories of ageing were based on loss of heat and loss of moisture

Dietary restriction has been a constant theme in recipes for longevity, although the underlying rationale has changed

Do not try to live forever; you will not succeed

Biblical longevity

Consider 17th century England. Educated Englishmen then knew for a fact, in the same way that we know for a fact that DNA is the genetic substance, that there were two trees in the centre of the Garden of Eden. The first was the tree of life, and of its fruit Adam and Eve might eat; the second was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and of that tree they might not eat, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”4 Anyone who believed in the literal truth of Genesis, and that included most 17th century physicians, understood that …

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