On 16 November 1635, William Harvey presented Queen Henrietta Maria with an unusual birthday present: the body of Thomas Parr, aged 152.

The famous anatomist had procured the centenarian’s body after Thomas Howard, 14th earl of Arundel, brought the old man from Shropshire to London to meet Charles I. Parr, who claimed to be born in 1483, had spent most of his life working as a husbandman in Winnington. At the age of 80, he married Jane Taylor and had two children by her, both of whom died in infancy.  But Parr’s young wife could not keep his affections, and at the age of 105 he did penance for cheating on Jane with one Katherine Milton. Seven years later, Jane died leaving Parr a widower for a decade before he again remarried, this time at the alleged age of 122. [1]

When Parr died on the 14th/15th November 1635, he was blind and had only one tooth left in his mouth. At the request of Charles I, Harvey dissected the old man’s corpse in the presence of the court and in honour of the Queen’s birthday.

Harvey—who uncritically accepted Parr’s age—determined that the old man had died after being exposed to the polluted air of London. At the autopsy, he reported:

The cause of death seemed fairly referrible [sic] 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. [2]

Upon arriving in London, however, Parr was exposed to that ‘destitute’ city where ‘ditches abound, and filth and offal lie scattered about’ to say nothing of ‘the smoke engendered by the general use of sulphureous coal as fuel’. Harvey concluded that ‘[s]uch an atmosphere could not have been found otherwise than insalubrious to one coming from the open, sunny, and healthy region’ of England, and was the direct cause of Parr’s death. [3]

It is unlikely that Parr died from a sudden ‘change in the air’; however, Harvey was not wrong about the filthy conditions in London during the 17th century. Without a proper sewage system in place, the city was a breeding ground for waste and disease. In 1660, Samuel Pepys complained that he had ‘stepped into a great heap of turds’ due to his neighbours outhouse overflowing into his cellar. A year after Parr’s death, London would experience an outbreak of bubonic plague which would end up killing thousands.

Parr became a legend in his own right. Several publications about his life—including two broadsheets—appeared shortly after his death. In 1841, The Extraordinary Life and Times of Thomas Parr was published to promote an all-purpose herbal medicine called ‘Parr’s Life Pills’ [see advertisement]. In 1906—65 years after they first appeared in Parr’s biography, and 271 years after Parr’s death—these pills were still being advertised in Old Moore’s Almanack, a testament perhaps not to the efficacy of the pills but to the endurance of Parr’s legend.

After Harvey had finished anatomizing Parr, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His burial plaque states that he lived through the reigns of 10 monarchs, and marks his birth and death dates as 1483 and 1635.

So what was Parr’s secret to a long life? According to the old man: ‘[k]eep your head cool by temperance and your feet warm by exercise. Rise early, go soon to bed, and if you want to grow fat [prosperous] keep your eyes open and your mouth shut’. [4]

Wise words, indeed!

1. Keith Thomas, ‘Parr, Thomas (d. 1635)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).
2. W. Harvey, ‘Anatomia Thomae Parri … cum Guliellmi Harvae … observationibus’, in J. Betts, De ortu et natura sanguinis (1669), 319–25; trans. in G. Keynes, The life of William Harvey (1966), repr. (1978), 220–25.
3. Ibid.
4. J. Taylor, The old, old, very old man (1635).