THE LONG AND INDECOROUS LIFE OF TOM PARR
Medicine and Health Rhode Island, Oct 2004
by Aronson, Stanley M
The Court Calendar for October, 1635, listed many grave events imperiling Great Britain, but toward the end of the month there was the light-hearted presentation to King Charles I of Thomas Parr, a centenarian from Shropshire in western England.
Parr, known widely as Old Parr, was born in Winnington, Shropshire, allegedly in the year 1483 during the reign of King Edward IV. He was the son of a local farmer and at an early age entered domestic service in his home county. Following the death of his father in 1518, Parr returned to the family farm, now as owner. He remained a bachelor until age 80 when he married Jane Taylor. They had two children; both died in infancy.
In 1583, at age 100, Parr was required to do penance on the front steps of his parish church for the sin of unfaithfulness to his wife and, specifically, for his self-confessed carnal intimacy with Katherine Milton. This adulterous affair resulted in the birth of an illegitimate infant. Parr's first wife died in 1605 during the reign of James I, when Parr was said to be 122 years old. In time he married Jane Lloyd, but this second union produced no offspring.
Parr continued to work his small farm, although a progressive blindness hindered his labors. He ascribed his longevity to a diet of "green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk and mild ale with cider on special occasions." He opposed the use of either strong spirits or tobacco and urged temperance in both diet and behavior. Parr, the centenarian, was untutored and illiterate. And while it is doubtful whether he could distinguish between a centaurian, a centurion or a centenarian, he nonetheless appreciated his singular status and made certain that others knew of it.
Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, heard of Old Parr's unusual longevity and resolved to exhibit him in the court of the reigning monarch, King Charles I. Howard had previously been imprisoned in the Tower of London by the King, and Howard chose to display Old Parr before the King as a conciliatory and perhaps amusing gesture. These were times of great stress in Britain. The King had dissolved a belligerent Parliament in March of 1629 and now ruled the realm unilaterally. The island nation was increasingly torn by religious conflicts, the king's continuing difficulties in selecting a marriage partner, unsuccessful military ventures abroad and vexatious taxation of the emerging mercantile class. These were times when light-hearted nonsectarian diversions were encouraged in the troubled Court of King Charles.
Howard transported blind Old Parr in a special litter and sent his jester to entertain the old man during the lengthy journey to London. Parr was duly exhibited in October of 1635. He was stared at, prodded and questioned at length. All in attendance were duly convinced that this elderly man was 152 years in age. After his Court encounter, Old Parr made the rounds of other princely mansions, eating sumptuously and consuming rich wines as never before. Following two weeks of extravagant life, he died. The King ordered that an autopsy be performed by the great Dr. William Harvey, who found no internal disease nor even evidence of tissue senescence. Parr had lived all his life on Shropshire farms, and the cause of death was declared to be the air pollution of London. The King ordered that Parr be buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, where his tomb may be found to this day.
There have been numerous claims of extended human lifespans over the centuries; and certainly there is precedent in the prediluvian elders of the Hebrew Bible, some of whom were said to have lived for centuries. In recent decades, there have been assertions of seniors, particularly in the Caucasus mountains of Asian Georgia, living well beyond the Biblical limitation of 120 years.
Curiously, though, there are no authenticated instances of humans surviving beyond the age of 121 years in the more advanced, and presumably healthier, nations. The contention may be offered that the United States, as well as the other industrialized nations, are infiltrated with more damaging chemicals polluting their air and water than, for example, the Russian Caucasus mountains. Yet no one would doubt that Americans, on average, live substantially longer than the residents of Caucasian Georgia. Perhaps something in the rarefied attitudes of the Caucasus makes a few souls live beyond the usual limits of life. Perhaps, if not the absence of some as yet unidentified toxin in these mountains, it is something in their realm of spirituality - or their love of yogurt. And it may be, according to Oscar Wilde, that those whom the gods love grow young. Or, on the other hand, the skeptics of the world may conclude that these anecdotal instances are little more than a lack of proper birth certification wedded to a fertile imagination. Certainly the number of advanced centenarians in each community seems to be inversely proportional to the exactness of vital statistics.
In the United States, where we are constrained by fairly meticulous record-keeping, there has been a progressive lengthening of life since the onset of the 20th Century. For example, an average male in 1950 lived to 65.6 years, and an average female, 71.1 years. By 2000, the average American male lived to 74.1 years, and the average female, 79.5 years. On average, too, African-Americans lived about the five fewer years than their white counterparts. Nations such as Malavi, Botswana and Mozambique, burdened by poverty, inadequate medical resources and the scourge of AIDS, now record average life expectancies of less than 40 years.
Nature dispenses longevity in a seemingly random manner: for the adult mayfly, life is measured in hours, while for the metasequoia tree, in centuries. The metasequoia tree enjoys a stoical life, steady and measured in its growth, tempered only by the winds and lightning, and dying after more than a millennium of existence, of utter boredom; the mayfly, in contrast, lives its brief stay in a state of full and unfettered ecstasy, smiling each precious minute of its fragile existence.
STANLEY M. ARONSON, MD, MPH
Copyright Rhode Island Medical Society Oct 2004
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Aronson, Stanley M "LONG AND INDECOROUS LIFE OF TOM PARR, THE". Medicine and Health Rhode Island. FindArticles.com. 15 Jun, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4100/is_200410/ai_n9464852/