Here are profiles of 23 great scientists who lived for over 100 years, with the oldest reaching 110 years of age. Of the five who reached the greatest ages four were mathematicians. The highest age at which anyone published new work was 103 and the highest retirement age from teaching was 104.
Dorrit Hoffleit lived for 100 years, from March 12 1907 to April 9 2007. She was born in Florence, Alabama, USA and died in New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
She co-discovered the optical variability of the quasar 3C 273, the first quasar ever identified, and co-authored The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, offering precise distances to over 8000 stars, information that is essential to understanding the dynamics and evolution of our Milky Way galaxy.
Maurice Goldhaber lived for 100 years, from April 18 1911 to May 11 2011. He was born in Lemberg, Austria-Hungary (which is now Lviv, Ukraine) and died in East Setauket, New York, USA.
Working with the neutron’s discoverer, James Chadwick, he found that neutrons can decay. With Lee Grodzins and Andrew Sunyar, he discovered that neutrinos have negative helicity.
Preston Bassett lived for 100 years, from March 20 1892 to April 30 1992. He was born in Buffalo, New York, USA and died in New York City, USA.
An inventor and engineer, he patented 35 devices including carbon arc lights for movie projectors and military searchlights. He was called upon by Albert Michelson to advise on arc lighting and gyroscopes in the famous measurements of the speed of light at Mount Wilson Observatory.
Ernst Mayr lived for 100 years, from July 5 1904 to February 3 2005. He was born in Kempten, Germany and died in Bedford, Massachusetts, USA.
He was an evolutionary biologist who redefined the word species to mean a group of living things that can reproduce only within the group.
Waldo Semon lived for 100 years, from September 10 1898 to May 26 1999. He was born in Demopolis, Alabama, USA and died in Hudson, Ohio, USA.
He invented plasticized polyvinyl chloride, the third most used synthetic plastic in the world and held 16 patents in the field of synthetic rubber.
Ancel Keys lived for 100 years, from January 26 1904 to November 20 2004. He was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA and died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
He specialized in the study of human nutrition and is remembered for formulating K-rations for American soldiers in World War 2 and hypothesizing and promoting the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.
Claude Lévi-Strauss lived for 100 years, from November 28 1908 to October 30 2009. He was born in Brussels, Belgium and died in Paris, France.
He was an anthropologist, held to be one of the fathers of modern anthropology. He was responsible for the field of structural anthropology – the idea that all forms of human activity are founded on the same basic thought patterns.
Raymond Firth lived for 100 years, from March 25 1901 to February 22 2002. He was born in Auckland, New Zealand and died in London, England, UK.
He was a professor of anthropology, responsible for the splitting of social organization from social structure. He was still writing in his hundredth year. He seems to have inherited genes for long life from his father, who lived to the age of 104.
Friedrich Hund lived for 101 years, from February 4 1896 to March 31 1997. He was born in Karlsruhe, Germany and died in the same city.
He was a physicist, famous for molecular orbital theory and Hund’s Rule, which determines how the electron shells in an atom are filled. Robert Mulliken, winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Chemistry said Hund’s work had been of great importance to his own research and that, in a fairer world, they would have been awarded the prize jointly.
Charles Abbot lived for 101 years, from May 31 1872 to December 17 1973. He was born in Wilton, New Hampshire, USA and died in Riverdale, Maryland, USA.
He specialized in studying the sun’s electromagnetic radiation, charting variations in the sun’s energy output and relating these variations to climate patterns experienced on Earth. He invented and patented a number of solar energy devices, including the solar boiler, solar cooker and solar still.
Harriette Chick lived for 102 years, from January 6 1875 to July 9 1977. She was born in London, England, UK and died in the same city.
She was a biochemist. Working with colleagues, she initiated the new field of protein folding with the discovery that protein denaturation was not the same as protein coagulation. She and Elsie Dalyell led research into rickets, discovering that the disease was not transmissible, but was caused by a nutritional deficiency, which could be cured with cod-liver oil or ultra-violet light. (We now know rickets is caused by vitamin D3 deficiency.) Chick also devised Chick’s Law, which later became the Chick-Watson equation.
Michel Chevreul lived for 102 years, from August 31 1786 to April 9 1889. He was born in Angers, France and died in Paris, France.
He was a professor of chemistry who discovered margaric acid and creatine. Funnily enough, he was also a specialist in the science of aging!
Albert Hofmann lived for 102 years, from January 11 1906 to April 29 2008. He was born in Baden, Switzerland and died in Burg im Leimental, Switzerland.
While working as a chemist for Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, he discovered lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as the psychedelic drug LSD. Hofmann discovered the drug’s mind-altering effects when he accidentally ingested a tiny grain of it. The drug was used in psychoanalysis therapy for 10 years before it was banned.
Boris Bukreevr lived for 103 years, from September 6 1859 to October 2 1962. He was born in Lgov, Kursk, Russia and died in Kiev, Ukraine, Soviet Union.
A mathematician, he contributed new ideas in gamma functions, complex functions, elliptic functions, non-Euclidean geometry, and the roots of transcendental functions. He continued publishing new research until he was 98 years old, and retired when he reached 100.
Michael Heidelberger lived for 103 years, from April 29 1888 to June 25 1991. He was born in New York City, USA and died in the same city.
He was the founder of the science of immunochemistry. Working with Oswald Avery, he discovered that the antigens of pneumococcus bacteria are polysaccharides, and therefore that antibodies are proteins.
Rita Levi-Montalcini lived for 103 years, from April 22 1909 to December 30 2012. She was born in Turin, Italy and died in Rome, Italy.
After graduating as a Doctor of Medicine, she opted for a career in medical research. She won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF).
William Gould Dow lived for 104 years, from September 30 1895 to October 17 1999. He was born in Faribault, Minnesota, USA and died in Bellevue, Washington, USA.
He was an engineer-inventor whose wide interests included space research and computer engineering. He invented improved induction welding methods, which were used in aircraft production during WW2. He also invented a radar-jamming device, which was highly effective, and saved countless pilots’ lives. Regarding the mystery of his long life, he said you need to “select the right grandparents, have a good family life, and don’t let the armchair get you.”
Arnold Beckman lived for 104 years, from April 10 1900 to May 18 2004. He was born in Cullom, Illinois, USA and died in La Jolla, California, USA.
He invented one of the most important tools in chemistry and biology – the pH meter. He started up Beckman Instruments, then developed the DU spectrophotometer, going on to fund the first transistor company in California – the beginnings of Silicon Valley.
Henri Cartan lived for 104 years, from July 8 1904 to August 13 2008. He was born in Nancy, France and died in Paris, France.
A mathematician specializing in algebraic topology, he developed the Cartan Model. He was a founder of the influential Bourbaki Group, whose objective was to reconfigure mathematics to be based on set theory.
Inge Lehmann lived for 104 years, from May 13 1888 to February 21 1993. She was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and died in the same city.
She was a mathematician, who switched her focus to seismology. She discovered that our planet has a solid inner core inside a molten outer core.
Ray Crist lived for 105 years, from March 8, 1900 to July 23, 2005. He was born in Shepherdstown, Pennsylvania, USA and died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA.
A chemist, he played a leading role in the Manhattan Project to build the world’s first nuclear weapon. He helped develop a method to separate isotopes of uranium. He retired from teaching environmental chemistry at the age of 104.
Sergey Nikolsky lived for 107 years, from April 30 1905 to November 9 2012. He was born in Talitsa, Russia and died in Moscow, Russia.
He was a mathematician, known for the Bernstein-Nikolsky Inequality, fundamental contributions to the theory of differentiable functions of many variables, and the theory of approximation of functions by polynomials.
Leopold Vietoris lived for 110 years, from June 4 1891 to April 9 2002. He was born in Bad Radkersburg, Austria-Hungary and died in Innsbruck, Austria.
He was a mathematician, responsible for Vietoris homology, Vietoris topology, the Vietoris–Rips complex, Vietoris–Begle mapping theorem, and the Mayer–Vietoris sequence. He published his final paper at the age of 103 in 1994 in Wissenschaft Math.-Natur.
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Image of Leopold Ernst Mayr courtesy Public Library of Science journal, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic.
Image of Claude Lévi-Strauss by UNESCO/Michel Ravassard, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.
Images of Friedrich Hund and Maurice Goldhaber by Gerhard Hund, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.
Image of Albert Hofmann by Philip H. Bailey, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.
Image of Arnold Beckman courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Image of Sergey Nikolsky by Maksim Sidorov, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
Images of Henri Cartan, Leopold Vietoris by Konrad Jacobs, Mathematisches Institut Oberwolfach, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany.