Abstract

We build a unique dataset of 300,000 famous people born between Hammurabi's epoch and 1879, Einstein's birth year. It includes, among other variables, the vital dates, occupations, and locations of celebrities from the Index Bio-bibliographicus Notorum Hominum (IBN), a very comprehensive biographical tool. Our main contribution is fourfold. First, we show, using for the first time a worldwide, long-running, consistent database, that mortality displays no trend during the Malthusian era. Second, after correcting for selection and composition biases, we date the beginning of the steadily improvements in longevity to the cohort born in 1640-9, clearly preceding the Industrial Revolution. Third, we find that this timing of longevity improvements concerns most countries in Europe, as well as all types of skilled occupations. Finally, the reasons for this early rise in mean lifetime have to be found in age-dependent shifts in the survival law.