Emma Morano was 117 years old when she died in Italy last month. Toward the end of her long life, she held an auspicious, if lonely, place in human history. She is believed to have been the last person on Earth who was born in the 19th century: November 29, 1899.
Barring planetary catastrophe, it will be some time before the last person who was born in the 20th century is gone.
If someone born in 1999 lives to be 117, like Morano did, that person may live to see the year 2117. Or perhaps even the 2120s, if that person reaches 122 years old: That’s still the record for longevity, held by Jeanne Calment, who was born in 1875 and died in 1997.
We can’t say for sure who holds the distinction of having been the last 18th-century baby on Earth, because there’s no way to know for sure. Even when birth records were accurate, they didn’t always survive. And lots of people make embellishments about their age in either direction. We do know, however, that one of the oldest people around in the early 1900s was Margaret Ann Neve, who was born near France in 1792, three months before the execution of Marie Antoinette. George Washington was the president of the United States at the time.
Neve died a month before her 111th birthday, in the springtime of 1903. By then, she’d achieved some degree of fame. She told reporters she distinctly remembered the “troubled times” of Napoleon Bonaparte’s leadership. During her honeymoon, she and her husband visited the field of Waterloo, where the famous battle had been waged just years before. There, according to newspaper accounts, she found a belt buckle from an Imperial Guard soldier.
“She is sweet faced, gentle, and fair, looking like a handsome old lady of 70,” one newspaper reporter wrote in 1903. “Brave old girls! Very aged women need no longer look like hideous mummies.”
Neve counted Queen Victoria of England among her friends, according to The New York Times account of Neve’s death. “Mrs. Neve never misses sending on her Majesty’s birthday a telegram of congratulation to Queen Victoria.” Victoria, in turn, had a portrait of Neve displayed in the royal summer home.
Although 19th-century longevity researchers insisted there were records of people who lived to be 189 years old, and even 207 years old, our modern understanding of the human lifespan tells us that it’s still unusual to make it past 100—let alone to 117 or 122.
That hasn’t stopped people from dreaming up ways to live longer—and who can blame us?—or plotting how to escape death entirely. But until we’re able to upload our consciousness into machines or otherwise achieve immortality, humans are left swapping secrets on how to live longer. Centenarians always seem to have their tricks: fresh air, kindness, city strolls, sushi, cheese, sherry, pigs’ ears, or in Emma Morano’s case, raw eggs. Margaret Ann Neve had her own secret.
“Mrs. Neve could note but one habit as an aid to her sustained vitality,” the Times wrote shortly after her death in 1903. “That of early rising, which the modern alienists [psychiatrists] look upon as a frequent source of insanity.”