The birthday effect: Famous people who died on their birthday

Domagoj Valjak
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If you browse through the biographies of famous artists, musicians, politicians, and intellectuals, you will notice that a surprising number of them died on their birthday. Some researchers claim that this trend is not coincidental, but a result of a statistical phenomenon called “the birthday effect.”

The birthday effect is a phenomenon where the probability of death increases on or around people’s birthdays. Studies of general populations in the United States, England, Switzerland, and Japan have shown that mortality rate significantly increases in the run-up to birthdays, and this trend is considered a statistical anomaly.

According to the researchers, the main reasons for this include stress related to the birthday, increased consumption of alcohol and drugs, and the tendency of terminally ill patients to hold off their passing until their birthday.

Also, the risk of suicide significantly increases around the time of people’s birthdays because of psychological factors, and the statistical phenomenon of birthday suicides is known as the “birthday blues.”

The list of people affected by the birthday effect and the birthday blues is long and includes many celebrities.

Gertrude Astor

Gertrude Astor from a scene still for the 1922 silent drama Beyond the Rocks.

Gertrude Astor was a prolific actress whose career spanned from 1915 to 1942. During that time she starred in over 250 movies, and her impressive filmography includes timeless hits such as The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. She died of a stroke on her 90th birthday on November 9, 1977. Her grave is located in the Abbey of Psalms at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California.

 Raphael

Self-portrait, Raphael in the background, from The School of Athens.

Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael is considered one of the greatest painters of the High Renaissance. His extremely detailed work inspired many artists in the following centuries. Raphael died on April 6, 1520, on his 37th birthday. The exact cause of his death remains unknown, but he reportedly died after an especially wild night with his long-time lover Margherita Luti. Despite dying at 37, Raphael left behind an impressive legacy of artwork.

Sidney Bechet

Bechet in New York in 1947.

Sidney Bechet was one of the first notable jazz saxophonists. He frequently played duets with Louis Armstrong and was known for his complex improvisations and polyrhythmic compositions.

Through his life, he was notorious for his violent temper, but his public excesses didn’t stop him from becoming one of the major names of 20th-century jazz. He died from lung cancer on May 14, 1959, on his 62nd birthday. He left the United States to live in Paris and was buried in France.

 Ingrid Bergman

Publicity photo of Ingrid Bergman.

The famous Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman was born on August 29th, 1915, and died on August 29th, 1982, aged 67. She died after a long battle with breast cancer; after she was cremated her ashes were sent to her home country of Sweden. During her prolific career, she received a staggering amount of prestigious awards, including three Academy Awards. She left behind an undying legacy of timeless classic movies, and will always be remembered as Ilsa Lund, her character from the iconic film Casablanca.

Gabby Hartnett

Gabby Hartnett was a famous Major League Baseball player who died on his birthday.

Charles Leo “Gabby” Hartnett was a celebrity baseball player who is praised as one of the best catchers of all time. He spent the majority of his Major League Baseball career as the catcher for the Chicago Cubs, and he was the first Major League catcher to score more than 20 home runs in a single season. He died on his 72nd birthday, on December 20, 1972.

William Shakespeare

The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

The influential poet and playwright William Shakespeare also died on his birthday, on April 23rd, 1616, aged 52. The cause of his death remains unknown, but historical records indicate that he was in good health just 20 days before his death, at the time when he finished composing his will. Shakespeare researchers believe that he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Grant Wood

Grant Wood, a famous American painter whose seminal paintingAmerican Gothic inspired the new wave of American Regionalism, also died on his birthday in his early fifties.

He passed away on February 13th, 1942, aged 51. He suffered from a severe form of pancreatic cancer and died at the hospital of the University of Iowa.

Grant Wood, Self-portrait, 1932

History has shown that notorious villains are also affected by the birthday effect. The famous gangster and robber, George Francis Barnes, popularly known as Machine Gun Kelly, died on his 59th birthday on July 18th, 1954.

Read another story from us: The history of celebrating birthdays and putting candles on cakes

He died at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas while serving a life sentence for bank robbery and conspiracy to kidnap.