When Juan Ponce de León traveled from Spain to the New World in 1513, he was looking for immortality. Legend has it that he was looking for the fabled fountain of youth. During his journey he named the state of Florida and his quest catalyzed the name of the Florida town of Ponce de León, a host of statues and even a 140 year old tourist attraction called the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It seems that in searching for eternal youth Ponce de León found a sort of immortality.
Only he wasn’t. The story of his famous search was concocted after his death by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in his 1535 book Historia General y Natural de las Indias. Was it a political satire lampooning him? This was, after all, the the same culture and era that produced Don Quixote, the world’s first comic novel.
Still, his posthumous fame isn’t bad for somebody dying at 47 from wounds inflicted as part of his colonization efforts. Although he wasn’t specifically looking for eternal youth, it got the better of him anyway.
This story fascinates me as a little window on the Spanish Renaissance showing that they were just as concerned with staving off death as we are today, with all the attendant risks. Joan Rivers was unapologetic about the cosmetic surgery that kept her looking 45 into her 80s. Surgery on her vocal chords was in fact the cause of her demise – but she had been stoic about it: “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”
Less known is that Queen Elizabeth I may well have died from lead poisoning from the white makeup (called “ceruse”) that was designed to keep her looking young. You can see her interest in retaining a semblance of eternal youth by comparing two remarkably different portraits of her, painted almost the same year, when she was about 68 years old. The first shows her looking surprisingly Jacobean, the fashion of a world that would shortly move on without her. The second is the famous “Rainbow Portrait” by Isaac Oliver, steeped with allegory. The spring flowers and the rainbow she holds are signs of eternal life and the eyes and ears on her timeless, classical cloak and the serpent of her sleeve indicate her unassailable wisdom. Elizabeth summed it up when she said “All my possessions for a moment of time,” arguably one of the most ubiquitous statements ever made.
But what if old Ponce had stumbled across the Fountain? Would Elizabeth and Joan have been friends? Maybe they would have been in a book club with Marie Antoinette and Elanor Roosevelt.
Researchers all over the world are working on trying to reverse the aging process and find a “cure” for mortality. In 2014 scientists at Australia’s University of New South Wales announced that they had reversed the aging process in mice. There’s also a microscopic jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii being studied that returns to a polyp stage to heal itself of injury and appears to be functionally immortal. It seems as if in our lifetimes we may see people routinely living past 100 years old and, some research suggests, far longer.
This begs the question, as explored by Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798): what will happen to society if the human population growth isn’t tempered by death? Malthus argued population growth is curbed by positive checks that raise the death rate (e.g. hunger, disease and war) and preventive ones that lower birth rate (e.g. birth control, abortion, celibacy and even prostitution). His positive checks are the sort of scary events we might expect in the face of runaway population growth.
And yet, on a personal level, who faced with the choice wouldn’t pursue a healthy life that went on an on?
“Does fashion matter? Always. Though not as much after death.” – Joan Rivers