How to Live a Long Life: Advice from the 17th & 19th Centuries

by Florentina Gutierrez, Library Assistant

As I work remotely during this time, one of my projects has been to find digitized versions of the Society’s Dowse Library books. One that caught my eye is called An Account of Persons Remarkable for Their Healthy and Longevity, written by a physician, Thomas John Graham (1795?-1876), and published in London in 1829. This book was meant as a supplement to another book by the same author, entitled Sure Methods of Improving Health and Prolonging Life. An Account of Persons Remarkable for Their Healthy and Longevity was meant to provide examples of people that have lived healthy lives and which support the advice given in the former book.

Title page o An Account of Persons Remarkable for Their Health and Longevity
An Account of Persons Remarkable for Their Health and Longevity

What piqued my interest in An Account of Persons Remarkable for Their Health and Longevity was not a need for advice in improving/extending my own life, but rather my curiosity as to what was thought to lead to healthy life nearly 200 years ago. Would the advice be completely different from what we hear today? Would the book suggest that people do things that we now consider unhelpful, unhealthy, or even dangerous? I have to say, I was surprised by how sound the advice actually was for the most part and most of it sounded like things experts say today. However, this surprise is coming from the perspective of someone who has little knowledge about the state of medicine/knowledge of the human body during the early 19th century.

John Thomas Graham starts of the book by saying that the “principal natural indications of long life are:

  1. To be descended from long-lived parents
  2. To be of a calm, contented, and cheerful disposition
  3. To have a just symmetry
  4. To be a long and sound sleeper” (Graham 1-2)


Graham then goes on to explain why he believes these all to be true. At least two of these seem to be somewhat controllable aspects of our lives that many of us strive for today, trying to be content and happy as well as sleeping enough each night. While overall, these “indications of a long life” seem almost obvious, Graham relies on mostly anecdotal evidence and some of the claims he makes in support of the above are not ones I’ve heard before. For example, Graham says that “in hot climates, the human frame is too hastily brought to maturity to last long” (Graham 28).

In his book he also refers to other more functional tips on how to have a prolonged life, which are based on a book written in 1648! (Almost 200 years before Graham wrote his own book). The list is long and mostly revolves around eating habits- again most seem to offer sound advice. Here’s the paraphrased list (Graham 33-38):

  1. Don’t over eat or you won’t be able to exercise
  2. Only have moderate amounts of exercise, food, drink, sleep, etc.
  3. Do not eat if you have not yet digested your last meal
  4. Don’t eat the same amount of food for each meal
  5. If you eat too much during a meal, eat less later
  6. Chew all your food before you swallow
  7. Proportion your drinks to the amount of solid food you’re eating
  8. Don’t eat too many different things at the same time
  9. Try abstaining from eating a meal once a week (maybe dinner), especially if you are not very hungry
  10. Try to exercise (probably just means move around) once a day and preferably before a meal
  11. Eat liquids and soft foods before dry and solid foods
  12. Try not to eat or drink in between meals
  13. Try to have a bowel movement every day
  14. Do not eat food that is too cold or too hot
  15. Sleep between 6 and 8 hours
  16. Do not try to read, write or reflect deeply after having a full meal
  17. Don’t exercise heavily right after eating
  18. Stretch
  19. Don’t drink (alcohol) on an empty stomach
  20. Don’t drink too much wine
  21. Eat only soft bread
  22. Try not to eat dairy
  23. Don’t eat fish often, when you do it should be “tender and well-dressed”


Out of all of these suggestions, I have to say I only found number 16 questionable and most others I have heard before. Perhaps the author thought that in the same way that you shouldn’t exert your body after eating a meal, you should also not exert your mind. And it’s true that many of us probably need a nap after a full meal! Although I have definitely been known to snack while I read.

After offering these tips, Graham goes on to describe people who lived particularly long lives- one of which he claimed lived to the age of 169! This man was named Henry Jenkins, said to have been born in 1501 and died in 1670. Graham refers to other unnamed authors who attest to this man’s age at death and Jenkins himself is said to have testified as to his old age under oath. Wikipedia also notes that his death, at least, can be trusted to be accurate as it is noted on a parish register. Besides his age, Jenkins is known to have been a fisherman in old age and then have gone on to begging- prior to this, nothing much is known. As to his “healthy” habits, Jenkins is said to have swum through rivers and had a “diet [that] was course and sour” (Graham 63-65)!

Unfortunately, I could not find additional information on the life of the author himself, John Thomas Graham, online, besides the fact that he wrote other medicine-related books. However, if you would like to read more of this book and his other book on Sure Methods of Improving Health and Prolonging Life, you can find them here and here. Of course, I would suggest referring to modern books and physicians if you are looking for medical advice for improving your health.


Graham, Thomas J. An Account of Persons Remarkable for Their Health and Longevity. London, Simpkin and Marshall, 1829.