Biography of Centenarian George Higginson

About the English General and centenarian George Higginson, biography and history, diet and advice for longevity.

A LESSON IN LONGEVITY

GEORGE HIGGINSON (1826-1927)

George Wentworth Higginson, who lived longer than any other general in British history, is often acknowledged to have lived two complete lives--one as a career officer in the Grenadier Guards and a Crimean War hero, the other, beginning on his retirement at age 67, as an elder statesman, companion of royalty, and public servant. Throughout his 100 years and 7 months he retained, right until the end, such a remarkable physical and intellectual vitality that a journalist of the day was prompted to observe on the general's 100th birthday, "Such a combination of eye, knowledge, retentiveness, and power of expression belonged rather to a community of centenarians than to an individual."

An only child, Higginson was born into a wealthy and distinguished London family that had produced generations of military figures before him going back to the 17th century, although it had not produced another centenarian. Higginson the boy was groomed from the outset for military life and was admitted to the Grenadier Guards in 1845, just after his graduation from Eton.

The general was best known in his day for his valor during the Crimean War in the 1850s; he was at such sieges as Balaklava, Scutari, Sevastopol, and Inkerman, where his horse was killed as he rode into battle against 30,000 attacking Russians. Higginson survived the horrors of battle--the rampant cholera, inhuman housing, shortages of food--and when he returned to England, he miraculously appeared to be the only one of the 34 generals in his battalion to have retained his health. His frank assessment of the shabby conditions under which the British forces had to live was as widely publicized as his battle exploits, and it led to many reforms.

"What think you," he wrote, "of a ship being sent to Scutari, full of medical stores and then, on arriving there, it having been found that the Ordnance had packed tons of siege shot and shell on the top of the pills and medicines so that no doctor's stuff could be landed till the vessel had gone to unload her soldiers' stuff at Balaklava!"

Higginson retired in 1893 at the age of 67, but he continued to travel, preside at state functions, and confer with Queen Victoria on military matters. Not until he was nearly 90 did he write his memoirs, a 400-page work called 71 Years in a Guardsman's Life.

Higginson marked his 100th birthday on June 21, 1926, by attending an inspection by the Duke of Connaught of the first battalion of Grenadier Guards at Windsor. The following day, The Times of London wrote, "If records were obliterated, Sir George Higginson would have some difficulty in persuading anybody of the length of his years. They sit so lightly upon him that he might be found guilty of increasing a legitimate 70 by an unwarranted 30. He may possess a wrinkle or two to support the evidence of the baptismal register, but, if so, one forgets them in looking on the lean, healthy face, which, with its heavy eyebrows and moustache, conveys only the pleasantest hint of age. It could be urged also against the mere numerical fact, that he . . . takes the chair at meetings, speaking in public and, in private, remembers."

Diet: Well into his 90s, Higginson worked out daily with weighted Indian clubs and took long walks. He ate and drank in moderation, admitted a fondness for mutton, and never smoked.

Advice: Higginson was not one for the passive life, and the often advised younger men and women to pursue their career ambitions with zest. However, he also warned against "self-advertisement and the too ardent pursuit of honors."

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