Home' Technology Review : March April 2012 Contents 83 Years Ago
technology review March/ April 2012
We could be on the verge of
advances that extend the human
life span by decades. In 2010,
for example, a Stanford team increased
the life span of worms by up to 30 per-
cent by blocking the expression of certain
proteins. That same year, researchers at
Boston University identified 150 places on
the human genome that are responsible for
long life, and Harvard researchers rejuve-
nated mice by manipulating the animals’
telomeres, the portion of DNA that caps
It might seem as if a magic pill isn’t so
far off. But before we get too cheery about
the prospects for these discoveries, it’s use-
ful to be reminded of the many longevity
“breakthroughs” that have come and gone
in the past. One such potential advance
was hailed in the November 1929 issue of
Technology Review, in an essay called “Fore-
stalling Death: The Cow’s Contribution to
Human Longevity,” by James A. Tobey.
None of the explorers in the realm of eter-
nal life, none of the necromancers or alche-
mists of old, none of the gazers at crystals or
the readers of the stars, have been success-
ful in their quest for the fountain of youth.
Modern science has done better.
In the previous 125 years, Tobey observed,
average life span had risen from the low 30s
to the upper 50s. This was primarily due
to reductions in infectious disease and in
the infant death rate—in 1929, he noted,
there were a mere 64 deaths per 1,000
infants (today’s rate in the United States
is six deaths per 1,000). The primary causes
of death were changing as well.
Tuberculosis, long the captain of the
men of death, and frequently the despoiler
of young manhood, has dropped to fifth
place. Ahead of it are heart disease, cancer,
nephritis, and cerebral hemorrhage, in that
order ... Typhoid fever, for instance, now
causes a mortality only one-fifth as great
as a quarter of a century ago.
This was good, but Tobey—author of
more than a dozen books on public health,
including Cancer: What Everyone Should
Know About It (1932) and Your Diet for
Longer Life (1948)—felt we could do better.
It wasn’t enough to simply reduce a threat
such as infectious disease—it was impera-
tive that we find something we could add
to our lives, or maybe simply increase our
intake of something we were already con-
suming. He felt recent research might have
uncovered just such a substance.
It is a well recognized fact ... that those
races which have been nourished on foods
containing a preponderance of dairy prod-
ucts have always been the most vigorous
and long-lived, as well as the most impor-
tant historically. The conquerors have been
users of cows.
He pointed to recent experiments at
Columbia University, wherein one set of rats
had been given an “adequate diet” of one-
sixth dried whole milk and five-sixths whole
wheat. An “optimal diet” group, meanwhile,
received double the milk and less wheat.
The average duration of life was almost
exactly ten percent greater in those subjects
receiving the optimal diet ... Is it possible
that we have had the fountain of youth
within our grasp throughout the ages that
man has been seeking this liquid phan-
tasm? Milk has always been recognized
as the one most nearly perfect food ... but
apparently it possesses hitherto undreamed
Those virtues appear to have dimmed 25
years later, when Tobey revisited the sub-
ject in a May 1954 TR piece called “Is There
a Limit to Human Life?” He didn’t men-
tion dairy once in that lengthy article, and
his tone in general was less upbeat, even
though the average U.S. life expectancy had
risen to 68 years (it is now 78).
Centenarians are, of course, always
asked as to what they attribute their great
ages, but invariably their answers are a bit
weird, often absurd, and completely lack-
ing in uniformity. In the olden days the few
favored persons who attained to great old
age undoubtedly did so through the opera-
tion of the law of the survival of the fit, but
in our modern sanitary civilization the
achievement of unusual old age is probably
largely a matter of heredity and—luck.
TiMoThY MAh er is TR ’s As sisTAnT MAnAg ing ediTo r.
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83 Years Ago in TR
Putting Death Out to Pasture
one writer wondered if cows’ milk was the key to human longevity.
By TimoT hy m aher
Mar12 Years Ago.indd 88
2/6/12 3:42 PM
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