Old as Methuselah? Supercentenarians, Narrative Wisdom and the Importance of History for Health


Rina Knoeff
University of Groningen


According to the Arnhemse Courant of 21 October 1828, eighteenth-century Northern Europe counted no less than 1,672 people between 100 and 185 years old. This news report defies the imagination. Who would believe that centuries ago so many people could live to such old ages? In her inaugural lecture, Rina Knoeff shows that we should take this report - and other stories about unusual diseases, miraculous cures, and remarkable scientific insights - seriously.

People in the past were no fools. Historical accounts of centenarians show how knowledge and health experiences were embedded in historically grown cultural patterns in which moral views and political motivations prevailed alongside medical theories. This is no different today. Like no other, the historian can show that our ideas about health and well-being are bound in place and time. By studying historical narratives that seem strange – even unbelievable – to us now, we can recognise what is particular about our own perceptions of health. This skill, which Knoeff characterises as "narrative wisdom", is also crucial for analysing and improving public health care. In her inaugural lecture, Knoeff shows that health is not exclusively biomedical, but above all a societal issue. This also means that in public health care, we should move away from a focus on clinical perspectives, and give more space to the humanities, which are much better at explaining the cultural factors that determine our health.

Design and layout: LINE UP boek en media bv | Riëtte van Zwol, Mirjam Kroondijk
Cover photo: Etching of Henri Jenkins by T. Worlidge, 1792, after R. Walker.
Author photo: Aernout Steegstra, https://fotowiersma.nl/

Published by University of Groningen Press
Broerstraat 4
9712 CP Groningen


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Author Biography

Rina Knoeff, University of Groningen

Rina Knoeff studied Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Maastricht. After doing a PhD at Cambridge University (2000) she was a postdoc at the Universities of Maastricht and Leiden. Her research is aimed at the cultural history of medicine, health, and the body. In NWO-funded projects she analysed the Enlightenment medicine of the Dutch Boerhaave school, as well as the history of anatomical collections. She has recently turned to the history of healthy living and ageing, thereby connecting history and contemporary challenges. During the Covid pandemic, she was publicly visible in the media  emphasizing that historical knowledge is necessary in policymaking. The link between past and present also drives her work as director of the Groningen Centre for Health and Humanities and at the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health.

cover page inaugural lecture Rina Knoeff



November 15, 2023


Oratie, Inaugurele Rede, Inaugural Lecture, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, University of Groningen, Faculteit der Letteren, Faculty of Arts, Rina Knoeff, 2023