Christian Mortensen, 1882-1998
Thomas Peter Thorvald Kristian Ferdinand Mortensen was born on August 16, 1882, in the village of Skaarup, near the city of Skanderborg, in the large peninsula on the western side of Denmark known as Jutland. As a child, he was known as Thorvald, but came to be known as Kristian when he began work as a tailor’s apprentice in Skanderborg around the age of 16. Five years later, in 1903, he sailed to America, where he has been known as Christian – and, to friends, Chris – ever since. Someone once asked him why he had so many names. He replied, with characteristic good humor, "Somebody didn’t like me, I guess, so they troubled me with a lot of names."
I had the great pleasure of meeting Chris Mortensen in March 1995, when he was 112 years old. I heard about him from some colleagues in Denmark, who had read his story in a Danish newsmagazine. As researchers who are familiar with the numerous false claims of exceptional longevity, we were at first quite skeptical. There were a handful of well-documented cases of women living beyond the age of 110 – including one French woman who at that time was almost 120 – but we knew of only one man who had (verifiably) lived to the age of 112. All other previous reports of men living beyond this age were – we believed and still believe – erroneous.
My first goal in getting to know Chris Mortensen was merely to confirm his age and identity, but we quickly became friends too. Early in our investigation, we found his birth certificate in the Danish archives. Over a period of several months, we found more information about his life in census records from both Denmark and the United States. We also found immigration and employment records, all of which seemed to confirm that he was as old as he claimed. Ever skeptical, we sought to verify that he was indeed the same person referred to in these records. Thus, I asked him many detailed questions about his past, checking his responses against written records whenever possible. His memory of events that had occurred 80 or 90 years earlier was astounding! In the end, there was no room for doubt about his age or identity. And so we know without question that Chris died last week at the age of 115 years and 252 days, the oldest man on record in the history of our species.
The things I remember most about Chris are his love of cigars, his steady and practical approach to life, his strong singing voice even in his final years, his bitter memories of a wife whose name he had almost forgotten, and above all, his sense of humor. He knew he was the oldest man in the world, and he was proud of that fact. When Jeanne Calment died at the age of 122 during August of last year, less than two weeks before Chris’ 115 birthday, it appeared for a few days that Chris might be crowned the oldest person in the world. In any case, he wanted that distinction. When they told him, just two days before his birthday, that there was a woman in Canada who was (verifiably) about 2 years older than him, he said, "They did that just to ruin my party!"
I have been asked many times about the secret to Chris’ long life. There is no easy answer. In many ways, Chris broke the mold. We know that smoking tobacco reduces one’s chance of living long, but Chris loved cigars and probably smoked a few per week from the time he was 20 years old until his death. Likewise, single men aren’t supposed to live as long as married men, but Chris was single for almost all of his life (he was probably married for less than 10 years). Chris also had few of the social and economic advantages that may contribute to long life and good health. He had no fancy college degrees or high-status jobs. He worked as a tailor, as a milkman, and in a factory. He was never rich, but in the end he was famous. He led a simple, somewhat solitary life. No one could have expected that this man would become one of the world’s oldest.
If you asked Chris about the key to his longevity, he would usually respond something like "Live a good, clean life!" By that he meant to eat well, exercise, take care of yourself, and of course, drink lots of water. It also meant smoking an occasional cigar if that makes you happy. On his 115th birthday, he was quoted as saying, "Friends, a good cigar, drinking lots of good water, no alcohol, staying positive, and lots of singing will keep you alive for a long time."
It was a privilege getting to know Chris Mortensen in his final years. It still amazes me to think that I had the chance to know someone who was too old to serve in the First World War. Life brings surprises sometimes. At his age, death is probably less a surprise than a blessing. Still, I have felt a real sense of loss since his passing. Thank you, Chris, for the moments we shared! They were very, very special to me, and I will never, ever forget you.
April 30, 1998