Mortal Coil

Like most animals, humans cling to life tenaciously. Even in care homes and hospices where the spirit is weakened, one more breakfast and one more dawn is generally preferred to oblivion. David Boyd Haycock ( here gives us a history of our battle against mortality.


Four centuries ago in western Europe more people died in infancy than at any other age. Those who survived childhood could be expected to live to about today’s age of retirement, and a few to eighty or a bit more. Since then death before the age of sixty has become uncommon in developed countries. The number of centenarians has surged; Japan has deemed bonuses formerly paid to centenarians no longer affordable. We appear to be on the way to having significant numbers of people live to be 100. Judged by an ability to perform physical and mental tasks, old age has receded. Humans have always wish to delay the arrival of the grim reaper and now geneticists and geriatric researchers are working seriously to extend our longevity.


Haycock gives us a history of ambitions to combat mortality during the last 400 years and of the sources of inspiration for such hopes. He charts these expressions dating to the Old Testament and the belief that the patriarchs lived hundreds of years; on hope in the perfectibility of humankind, not just in morality but also in immortality; on the supposed long lives of some individuals who understood secrets about ageing; and on the belief that disease would be conquered. We are introduced to scientists from Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, and Condorcet to Hayflick, Kirkwood, and Walford.


In the early parts of this account, ‘prolongevists’ experimented mostly on themselves. In the twentieth century they began to experiment on volunteers, some from their laboratories and some from the credulous public. But scientific advance really does hold out the promise of longer lives, and Haycock expresses his optimism here. Enjoy this witty and informative exploration into our unceasing desire to live forever.


Read alongside Stephen Cave’s Immortality: The Quest To Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation (reviewed by me here,

available here


Check if these treatments of the topics of mortality and immortality are in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at



288 pages in Yale University Press

First published 2008

ISBN  978-0300117783



David Boyd Haycock

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