Celebrity death stats 2016: the who, the why, and the what the hell? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 15.12.2016
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Celebrity death stats 2016: the who, the why, and the what the hell?

It started in the last days of 2015. Lemmy and Natalie Cole. Come January, 2016 felt like the year of death. Major musicians, actors, politicians, scientists, writers have all died. Why? Here are the stats.

Death is life. Simple. You know the saying; there are two things no one can avoid: taxes and death. Well this year some of the most legendary, famous people have shown that such insipid clichés are true. And I've been looking at their death data.

Now I'm not offering analysis on how diligent the dead were with their taxes.

But there is reliable, public data on how and when they died. And when I say "they" I mean prominent people on the world stage. So artists like David Bowie (†69) sit next to politicians like Boutros Boutros-Ghali (†93) and Shimon Peres (†93), Nancy Reagan (†94) sits next to Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur (†69) and architect Zaha Hadid (†65), and writers like Harper Lee (†89) sit next to astronaut John Glenn (†95) and transgender actress, Alexis Arquette (†47).


The death list is a subjective selection of 110 figures in music, film and TV, politics, science and technology, literature and society. There's probably a good deal of unconscious - and conscious - bias on sex and location. For one, most of the dead are men - 92 men to 18 women. This was not conscious. Whenever I happened to hear of a prominent death, I would write it down. And most were men. I researched other lists (in various media) and found a similar ratio. I can't believe that so few prominent women have died, or that there are so few prominent women. But such is the list, and perhaps the notion in both traditional and new media that we're mostly interested in dead male rockstars.

USA Lemmy Kilmister und Slash in Los Angeles (picture alliance/Photoshot)

In the 80s, guitarist Slash (r), said all rockstars would soon be dead from HIV. He's still alive. Lemmy (l) is not

I make no commentary on merit, positive or negative. This is not an honorary listing or "Glory 100" - it's more simply the first 100 names I came across, and who rang some kind of bell in my mind. That's why you'll also find The Beastie Boys' original guitarist on the list and you'll miss many, many others. 


As for the dates, I have fudged a little. The year's death ride actually started last year on December 28 when rock musician Lemmy Kilmister (†70) died. The list ends on December 9 with John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit the Earth. 

The first to go

Lemmy has to be the start, because it was his death that set off a collective shock. In hindsight, his death was a premonition of things to come. Lemmy was the sort of figure whom you might have thought would live forever. But after a life of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and tight jeans, he had to go sometime. And what a way to go? Lemmy suffered from three cancers (prostate cancer, and finally cancer of the brain and neck), he had diabetes, and bowed out on cardiac arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.

Verstorbene Künstler Bowie Frey Rickman Kilmister

Life-expectancy: it was only January and people sensed more of the greats were about to die

By contrast, Natalie Cole was less complicated. She died aged 65 three days later: heart failure brought on by idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH), a rare lung disease.

And then there were Pierre Boulez (†90), David Bowie, Alan Rickman (†69), Dale Griffin (†67), Glenn Frey (†67), Jimmy Bain (†68), and Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson, who were both in the band Jefferson Airplane and spookily died at the same age (74) and on the same day (January 28). Twenty-one of our top 110 died in January.

The way they went

Cancers and heart disease were two of the biggest killers in 2016. So far so standard. But a significant number of other greats died due to complications from neurodegenerative illness. This would tally with findings in England and Wales, where dementia has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death. Although heart failure did take out veteran German politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher (†89) and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Actors and musicians like Gene Wilder (†83), Bobby Vee (†73), Dale Griffin (†67) had Alzheimer's Disease.

Boxer Muhammad Ali (picture-alliance/empics)

Muhammad Ali had a long fighting career, then fought Parkinson's disease, and ultimately died of septic shock

Muhammad Ali (†74), Maurice White (†74) and Janet Reno (†78), the first female US attorney general, had Parkinson's.

John Berry (†52), a founding member of The Beastie Boys, and Andrew Sachs (†86), famous for playing hapless Spanish waiter, Manuel, in TV sitcom "Fawlty Towers," had dementia.

There were two suicides. Keith Emerson (†71) was known to suffer from depression, but the case of rising English cricketer, Tom Allin, who took his life at 28, was less well documented. 

Deaths due to drugs or medication include the musician Prince (†57), who died of an "accidental overdose" of Fentanyl (an opioid). And US wrestler "Chyna" (†46) overdosed on ambien and valium.

Then there was one execution: Nimr al-Nimr (†57) in Saudi Arabia.

Ten percent of cancers

Thirty prominent people on our list died of cancer (27 percent). There are more than 100 known forms of cancer. But the prominent people we selected seem to have died of only 11 specified forms of the disease.

Star Trek Zero Anton Yelchin (imago/ZUMA Press)

Star Trek star Anton Yelchin died at just 27 in a freak car accident in a private driveway

Those 11 types of cancer are: Lymphoma (1 death), Leukemia (1 death), prostate cancer (2 deaths), brain cancer (3 deaths), cancer of the neck (1 death), lung (3 deaths), pancreatic cancer (3 deaths), cancer of the bladder (1 death), liver (1 death), bowel (1 death), endometrial (1 death).

There were 12 unspecified forms of cancer.

Odd or unexplained

Star Trek star Anton Yelchin died at the age of 27 in a freak car accident in his home driveway. Fateh Singh, a celebrated Indian sports shooter, died while on duty as an army officer. And another English cricketer, Matthew Hobden, died at the age of 22 after falling from a roof. Meanwhile, the "King of Rhumba rock," Papa Wemba, died suddenly on stage in Ivory Coast.

Cause of death unknown

Of the 110 deaths selected, 23 were of unknown causes. That is, their cause of death was not immediately released to the public.

Thailand König Bhumibol Adulyadej (Getty Images/AFP/C. Archambault)

The older the person, the more likely they died "died peacefully" in their sleep, rather from anything specific

Scanning the list of names in this category, you can understand why. But only up to a point. There's people like Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej (†88) and Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro (†90). 

Often the cause of death is listed as "unknown," or "died peacefully in his/her sleep," "died after a long/short illness," and there's much to deduce from that other than speculation. For instance, a long illness could be some forms of cancer or dementia. And a short illness could be pancreatic cancer, which can put up and wipe you out in no time. But, largely, it seems an issue of privacy, especially with older people. The average age of people whose cause of death was unknown is 86.

Alvin Toffler Futurologe (picture-alliance/dpa/V. Belousov)

Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted our "Future Shock." He died at the age of 87

There's futurist Alvin Toffler and holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who were both 87.

The oldest and youngest

The youngest person to die was a 14-year-old girl known only as "JS." She died of a rare form of cancer. Her body has been cryogenically preserved.

The oldest person to die was former FIFA president Joao Havelange. He died at the age of 100.

And finally … Strange coincidences

Death can be spooky at the best of times, no doubt. But check this. There are a number of strange coincidences on our list of 110 prominent people.

Joao Havelange Brasilianischer Fußballverband IOC (picture-alliance/dpa)

Record-holder: Joao Havelange out performed the average dead man this year. He died at the age of 100

Four people had had something to do with the Star Wars films: Kenny Baker (†81), who performed as R2-D2, Tony Dyson (†68), who designed and build the original R2-D2 droid, Erik Bakersfield (†93), voice of Adm. Ackbar in "The Force Awakens" and Bib Fortuna in "Return of the Jedi," and Peter Sumner (†74), who played Lieutenant Pol Treidum in the 1977 classic.

Keith Emerson and Greg Lake (†69), both of prog-rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer, died. Both Prince and his protégé Vanity died at the age of 57, he in riches and she in poverty.

Veteran American journalists Morley Safer (†84) and Jeanne Parr (†92) died. Both worked for the CBS network.

And three James Bond associates died as well: Henry McCollough (†72), a musician who performed on the theme song, "Live and Let Die," Burt Kwouk (†85), who acted in "Goldfinger," and Guy Hamilton (93), who directed "Goldfinger" and three other Bond films.

Spooky indeed.

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110 prominent people

Ian Fraser "Lemmy" Kilmister,  Music,  Male,  70

Natalie Cole,  Music,  Female,  65

Tony Lane, Art, Male, 71

Vilmos Zsigmond, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 85

Matthew Hobden, Sport, Male, 22

Fateh Singh, Sport, Male, 51

Nimr al-Nimr, Politics, Male, 57

Brad Fuller, Science and Technology, Male, 62

Peter Naur, Science and Technology, Male, 87

Georg Nees, Science and Technology, Male, 89

Tom Allin, Sport, Male, 28

Pierre Boulez, Music, Male, 90

David Bowie, Music, Male, 69

Alan Rickman, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 69

Dale Griffin, Music, Male, 67

Glenn Frey, Music, Male, 67

Ettore Scola, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 84

George Weidenfeld, Writing, Male, 96

Jimmy Bain, Music, Male, 68

Abe Vigoda, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 94

Paul Kantner, Music, Male, 74

Signe Toly Anderson, Music, Female, 74

Frank Finlay, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 89

Sir Terry Wogan, Broadcasting, Male, 77

Joe Alaskey, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 63

Maurice White, Music, Male, 74

Roger Willemsen, Journalism, Male, 60

Vanity (Denise Matthews), Music, Female, 57

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Politics, Male, 93

Umberto Eco, Writing, Male, 84

Harper Lee, Writing, Female, 89

George Kennedy, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 91

Tony Warren, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 79

Martin Crowe, Sport, Male, 53

Tony Dyson, Science and Technology, Male, 68

Ray Tomlinson, Science and Technology, Male, 74

Michael White, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 80

George Martin, Music, Male, 90

Jon English, Music, Male, 66

Keith Emerson, Music, Male, 71

Frank Sinatra Jr, Music, Male, 72

Steve Young, Music, Male, 73

Joe Santos, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 84

Fife Dawg, Music, Male, 45

Johan Cruyff, Sport, Male, 68

Earl Hamner Jr., Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 92

Zaha Hadid, Science and Technology, Female, 65

Ronnie Corbett, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 85

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Politics, Male, 89

Erik Bakersfield, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 93

Merle Haggard, Music, Male, 79

Howard Marks, Writing, Male, 70

David Gest, Music, Male, 62

Chyna (Joan Marie Laurer), Sport, Female, 46

Victoria Wood, Film/Theatre/TV, Female, 62

Guy Hamilton, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 93

Prince, Music, Male, 57

Papa Wemba, Music, Male, 66

Jenny Diski, Writing, Female, 68

Afeni Shakur, Music, Female, 69

John Berry, Music, Male, 52

Morley Safer, Journalism, Male, 84

Jeanne Parr, Journalism, Female, 92

Burt Kwouk, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 85

Muhammad Ali, Sport, Male, 74

Nancy Reagan, Politics, Female, 94

Henry McCollough, Music, Male, 72

Ronnie Claire Edwards, Music, Female, 83

Attrell Cordes, Music, Male, 46

Anton Yelchin, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 27

Götz George, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 77

Michael Herr, Journalism, Male, 76

Bernie Worrell, Music, Male, 72

Bud Spencer, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 86

Alvin Toffler, Writing, Male, 87

Elie Wiesel, Writing, Male, 87

Alan Vega, Music, Male, 78

Garry Marshall, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 81

Kenny Baker, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 81

Joao Havelange, Sport, Male, 100

Gene Wilder, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 83

Alexis Arquette, Film/Theatre/TV, Female, 47

Don Buchla, Science and Technology, Male, 79

Edward Albee, Writing, Male, 88

Mandoza, Music, Male, 38

Shimon Peres, Politics, Male, 93

Neville Marriner, Music, Male, 92

Rod Temperton, Music, Male, 66

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Politics, Male, 88

Dario Fo, Writing, Male, 90

Jean Alexander, Film/Theatre/TV, Female, 90

Unnamed girl known as "JS", Society, Female, 14

Phil Chess, Music, Male, 95

Pete Burns, Music, Male, 57

Bobby Vee, Music, Male, 73

Jean-Jacquess Perrey, Music, Male, 87

Janet Reno, Politics, Female, 78

Leonard Cohen, Music, Male, 82

Robert Vaughn, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 83

Leon Russell, Music, Male, 74

Gwen Ifill, Journalism, Female, 61

Sharon Jones, Music, Female, 60

William Trevor, Writing, Male, 88

Andrew Sachs, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 86

Peter Sumner, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 74

Fidel Castro, Politics, Male, 90

Peter Hintze, Politics, Male, 66

Peter Vaughn, Film/Theatre/TV, Male, 93

Greg Lake, Music, Male, 69

John Glenn, Science and Technology, Male, 95

(Subsequent to publication of article)

George Michael, Music, Male, 53

Carry Fisher, Film/Theatre/TV, Female, 60

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