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What is the Birthday Effect? 6 Famous People Who Died On Their Birthday

(Photo Credit: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images)
(Photo Credit: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images)

A startling 2012 study from Switzerland proposed that 14% of people die on their birthday. The study examined the death records of two million people to learn more about the correlation between the date we are born and the date we die. The researchers found that there could be a greater risk of death for people “past a certain age” on their birthdays when compared to any other date in the calendar year.

Naturally, we turned to history to see just how many famous figures succumbed to the supposed “Birthday Effect.” Here are the stories of six famous figures whose final birthdays became a much different kind of celebration.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare portrait
William Shakespeare portrait with signature. Painting may be by Richard Burbage. English playwright. (Photo Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)

Famous playwright William Shakespeare died in his hometown Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52. Supposedly, the Bard was born the same day in 1564. Historians don’t know for sure his exact date of birth, but his baptismal record says he was christened on April 26th. At the time, it was customary to wait three days following an infant’s birth before baptizing them, which gives us the April 23rd date.

Even though his plays were well known in London at the time of his death, Shakespeare was not considered a famous person. It wasn’t until several years after his death that his friends started to compile his written work to protect it for the future. By 1623, the first “folio” of Shakespeare’s work was published, featuring 18 iconic works like Macbeth, Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Tempest.

Ingrid Bergman

Actress Ingrid Bergman reclining on a bed
Actress Ingrid Bergman (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman died on August 29, 1982, her 67th birthday. The award-winning Hollywood star was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1915 and began acting in Swedish films as early as 18 years old. Bergman’s most memorable role as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca cemented her legacy as one of the most accomplished actresses in Hollywood history, but she also won Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her roles in Gaslight (1943) and Anastasia (1956).

In 1974, Bergman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though she continued to act in films, cancer treatment took a huge toll on her health, and eventually, the cancer spread to her spine and lungs. As the clock struck midnight, Bergman succumbed to her cancer battle on her 67th birthday on August 29, 1982.

Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet plays the soprano saxophone.
Sidney Bechet, famed jazz musician, circa. 1950s. (Photo Credit: Ullstein Picture via Getty Images)

Jazz musician and saxophonist Sidney Bechet was born in the 7th Ward of New Orleans on May 14, 1897. At a young age, he taught himself how to play trumpet, clarinet, and saxophone – and began performing alongside family members when he was just six years old! Bechet was one of the grandfathers of jazz, developing the popular swing style in the early 1920s.

He was also one of the first jazz musicians to ever be musically recorded in 1923, months before his pal Louis Armstrong did. Bechet’s style is defined by emotional, melodic phrasing and an intense vibrato that often dominated over other instruments in the band.

Throughout the 1920s Bechet would tour the world with famous artists like Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker until he permanently settled in Paris. The jazz legend died from lung cancer on his 62nd birthday on May 14, 1959. Interestingly, jazz icon Billie Holiday died in the same year, just two months after Bechet.

Betty Friedan

Feminist Betty Friedan sits on a sofa at her New York City apartment in 1990.
American writer and feminist Betty Friedan at her apartment in New York City in 1990. (Photo Credit: Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Feminist, author, and activist Betty Friedan was one of the most influential figures of the second-wave feminist movement. She is renowned for her best-selling book The Feminine Mystique, which would become a source of enlightenment for many women throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Born on February 4, 1921, in Illinois to Russian-Hungarian immigrant parents, Friedan’s original name was Bettye Naomi Goldstein. After studying psychology at Smith College, Friedan took on a graduate fellowship to train as a psychologist at UC Berkley in 1942. Only one year after joining the program, she quit and moved to New York City to become a writer.

Friedan became a housewife herself in the 1950s and had the inspiration to write The Feminine Mystique when she realized many of her female friends were unhappy with being stay-at-home mothers. Betty grew to become a key figure in the women’s rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s and continues to inspire modern feminists today. Friedan died of heart failure on her birthday in 2006.


A painted portrait of Renaissance artist Raphael.
Self-portrait of artist Raphael painted in Florence, Italy circa 1506. (Photo Credit: Summerfield Press/CORBIS via Getty Images)

Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, is the oldest person on our list of birthday deaths. While his actual date of birth is slated as either March 28 or April 6, 1483, it seems that many historians agree that he was likely born on April 6, and died on the same day 37 years later. 

Raphael worked with a variety of artistic media, from painting to printmaking and architecture. Known as one-third of the “Holy Trinity of the High Renaissance” (and one-fourth of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) – which also includes Leonardo Davinci and Michelangelo – Raphael painted a collection of madonnas, portraits, and biblical scenes featured through Florence and the Vatican.

Raphael died on his 37th birthday in 1520, reportedly due to complications from syphilis. But a new study released in 2020 suggests that while Raphael was known to have a wild sex life, he likely died from a pulmonary disease.

Machine Gun Kelly

Mugshot of Machine Gun Kelly.
Mug shot of Machine Gun Kelly, circa 1933. (Photo Credit: Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images)

George Kelly Barnes, also known as the infamous Machine Gun Kelly, was born on July 18, 1895. The Prohibition-era gangster rose to fame when he kidnapped wealthy oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel in July 1933. Kelly and his wife Kathyrn Thorne demanded a $200,000 ransom in exchange for Urshcel’s safe return (over $4 million today). Kelly’s nickname refers to the machine gun that Kathryn Thorne had given him as a gift, which she forced Kelly to practice with using targets.

More from us: Fats Waller Was Kidnapped to Play Al Capone’s Birthday

Urschel remembered every detail of the kidnapping, which eventually led to the capture of Kelly on September 26, 1933. Kelly and his wife were both sentenced to life in prison. Machine Gun Kelly’s new nickname became inmate #117 when he was imprisoned on the infamous Alcatraz Island for the last 21 years of his life before his death on July 18, 1954 – his 59th birthday.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast