Putting Time into Perspective Pt. 1

Life Expectancies & Life Spans

By Mandi Cai This story was inspired by WaitButWhy's piece, Your Life in Weeks.

Most people would agree that quality of life and life expectancy have improved drastically since the Pre-Industrial era. We hear of the average life expectancy in previous centuries as sitting somewhere in the 25 to 40 year range, and that manifests in the notion that people living in the 16th to 17th centuries had a cap on the number of years they could live.

It's not that those number are wrong — it's that infant mortality occurred at much higher rates back then, and those occurrences skew the average. If a man survived to age 20 in the 16th century, his chances of surviving for another 40 years were much higher. Life expectancies sharply increased during the 1900's due to public health developments, most notably vaccines.

As I was doing this research, I was surprised to learn just how long some notable individuals lived, with some living longer than 80 years.

What is the life expectancy today?

This grid represents the 2016 global life expectancy at birth — 72 years, according to the World Health Organization.

From now on, we'll refer to the latest global life expectancy as GLE.

Each square represents 1 week.
Each row represents 1 year.

Life Expectancy VS Life Span

"Life Expectancy"

"the overall mortality level of a population", "refers to the number of years a person can expect to live"

It will vary depending on the person's age and is susceptible to skew if, say, a population is hit with the plague.

"Life Span"

the maximum amount of time that an individual can live

There's no substantial evidence showing that life span has significantly increased for the human population — a person could live to be over 100 in the 16th century, and they still could now.

What was the life expectancy from 1500 to 1700?

Let's zoom out and start from the 1500 to 1700 period. We'll start by looking at life expectancy back then.

In England, an individual had an average life expectancy of 39.7 to 40 years at birth. The blue row represents the life expectancy at birth. It's about half of the 2016 global life expectancy.

But if this same individual lived to age 30, they could expect to live to 59. The purple row represents this adult life expectancy.

These reported figures are loaded for many reasons — they are Eurocentric, they don't factor in women as much as they should, they may be based off of inaccurate reportings of one's age. The list goes on. But it is one of the best measures we have for life expectancy from this time period.

Let's unpack the lives of some individual historical figures from this time.


Pocahontas was born around 1596, and lived to be approximately 21 years old. It is theorized that she died from tuberculosis or pneumonia while at sea.

The pink rows represent her life span, as a fraction of the GLE.

Though Disney portrays Pocahontas as a young women, she would have met John Smith when she was 10 to 12 years old.

Sir Isaac Newton

In contrast, Sir Isaac Newton, who was born in 1643, lived to be 84 years, surpassing the GLE. Newton was born a tiny and weak baby, and was not expected to live as long as he did.

The yellow rows represent the years that Newton lived past the GLE.

Significant figures from 1500 to 1700

The most fascinating thing to me was looking at the life spans of individuals I had learned about throughout history, and comparing them. Voltaire and Sir Isaac Newton lived longer than 72 years, whereas Pocahontas and Anne, Queen of Great Britain died on the earlier side.

Another interesting thing: we often learn about these individuals in isolation, or as part of the curriculum for a single subject, but here, we can see how their lives overlapped.


Sir Isaac Newton


Galileo Galilei

Elizabeth Bathory

Sojourner Truth

Jane Austen

Mary Wollstonecraft

What was the life expectancy during the 1900's?

Life expectancy dramatically during the 1900's — in 1900, the life expectancy at birth was 31. By 1950, the life expectancy at birth was 48.





Significant figures from the 1900's

Rosa Parks

Walt Disney

Thomas Edison

Eva Perón

Elie Wiesel

Stephen Hawking

Salvador Dalí

Rachel Carson