Smoking and creativity: 20th-century data

Collecting data on the smoking habits of 18th-century writers wasn’t working out so well. After going through the 20 most eminent writers on my list but only being able to find anything for about half of them (and realizing that this track record could only get worse as I moved on to the more obscure authors), I decided I needed to find a more cooperative sample.

Figuring that there would be more biographical information available for more recent figures, and that English-speaking writers would have more biographies in English, I looked at male writers from English-speaking countries (Britain, Ireland, and America) who turned 40 (or died, for those who didn’t make it to 40) between 1900 and 1950. As before, the list of significant writers comes from Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment.

This time I was much more successful. My list includes 59 men, and I was able to find some kind of information for all but 6 of them. You can see the spreadsheet here.

I had hoped to analyze the data to see if higher levels of literary accomplishment were associated with higher rates of smoking. But unfortunately the early 20th century, unlike the 18th, seems to have been a time when just about everyone smoked. My sample includes a grand total of three, count them, three unambiguous non-smokers (Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and Robert Frost), plus three more (Eugene O’Neill, Graham Greene, and William Carlos Williams) who smoked but later quit. For whatever it’s worth, all three of the non-smokers are relatively eminent (scoring 15, 10, and 6, respectively, on a list where the median score is 4), but it’s hard to draw any real conclusions from such small numbers.

Another problem is that, though some are more eminent than others, everyone in my sample is an eminent writer. If I want to compare highly creative people to those who are less creative (rather than comparing the super-super-creative to the merely super-creative), I need a control group of people from the same period who did not work in a creative field. Of course, they must still be famous enough to have left behind adequate biographical information, which rather limits the choices. Athletes are out, for obvious reasons. Politicians are a possibility, but they may well have below-average rates of smoking for image-related reasons. (Certainly this is true today; I’m not sure whether it would have been true in the early 20th century.) Captains of industry could work, I suppose, if I could find a list somewhere, and if a sufficient number of them have gone down in history. I don’t have any other ideas.

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Filed under Drugs, Literature, Statistics

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