Amid all the recent Times stories about marital hazards posed by the fairer sex (John Tierney on women and mate-poaching; a story from Natalie Angier on how women in Tanzania are dedicated serial-monogamists, dropping one man for another), it was perhaps easy to miss a quieter, more poignant dispatch from the U.K.: The husband in Britain’s longest-lasting marriage died last week. His name was Frank Milford, he was 101 years old, and he was married to Anita, also 101, for 81 years. According to the British papers, the couple met and spent their entire married life in Plymouth, where they produced two children and survived two German bombs.
The couple had already achieved a certain level of fame. Given the extreme pervasiveness of divorce, it’s hardly surprising that the epic length of their union would make headlines. In the last few years, the British papers carried a number of stories trying to divine how on Earth they managed to make it work for so long. (“The Secret of Our 78-Year Marriage? Argue Every Day,” said one headline from three years ago.) But in dwelling on their 81-year marriage, the papers were obscuring the other—and far more remarkable—statistical fact: That a man born in 1908 lived to be over 101, and that the woman he asked to be his wife did the same. According to British census figures, his life expectancy was 49; hers was 53.
“If you told me they were siblings, it’d be less striking,” says Jacob S. Siegel, a retired Census Bureau demographer who specializes in human longevity. “Healthy people do tend to select healthy people as partners,” he notes. “And there’s good evidence that marriage promotes longevity. But any single individual lasting to 100 is already unusual. Centenarians tend to be people who both weathered the environmental storms of their lives successfully and have lucky genes. And this appears to be the case for both of them.”
Just how rare is a marriage between centenarians? Using the Social Security Administration’s actuarial tables from 1910 (the closest year to Mr. Milford’s cohort for which there’s good data), Siegel walks me through a calculation to find out. The chance of a man born in 1910 surviving to 101 years old is .133 percent, and the chance of a woman doing the same is .801 percent. If you multiply these two figures, you get the probability of a marriage between two such people: roughly one-thousandth of a percent (.00106533, to be precise).
No one thinks of these numbers, of course, when they’re just a young buck of 18, chatting with a pretty girl at a YMCA dance, the context in which Mr. Milford met his wife. But the fantasy of living peaceably into the golden years with one’s spouse is as old as the written word, enshrined perhaps nowhere so beautifully as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Baucis and Philemon ask Zeus to make sure that when one of them dies, the other goes as well. And so they get their wish: At the moment they pass, the two turn into intertwining oak and linden trees. Mrs. Milford is still alive, but Mr. Milford’s hand was entwined with hers when he died—and as these things go, that’s pretty much as close as us mere mortals will come to the stuff of myth.