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History of the actuarial profession

Actuaries | Knowledge services | Actuarial history | History of the actuarial profession

The need for insurance and pension arrangements comes from personal risk and uncertainty.
If you go on a journey or voyage, there is the risk of losing any goods entrusted to you, or your own
possessions, or even your life. Your house may catch fire and leave you and your family without a roof
over your heads. If you are a breadwinner, you run the risk of dying too soon and leaving your family to
starve. You may be unable to get a loan, if the lender is worried about repayment in the event of your
death. Alternatively, you may live too long after retirement, so that your savings become exhausted.

Early history
These risks existed from the earliest times, when the usual method of relieving poverty was by charity.
Destitute people used to beg on the streets. Nearby monasteries might have provided them with leftover food and drink, or the monks' cast-off clothing. However, charity was never very satisfactory,
because it provided inadequate and uncertain relief, with a social stigma.
Hence people tried to protect themselves financially against the risks of life and death. They developed
elementary insurance-type arrangements, which often failed because of a lack of knowledge and
understanding. Pensions were granted even in ancient Greece, and burial societies were formed in
both Greece and Rome to meet members' funeral expenses. In England in the Middle Ages it was
sometimes possible to pay a lump sum to a monastery and receive board and lodging (known as a
corrody) there for the rest of your life. However, not all corrodians were compatible with the religious
life. An unsuitable person could breed much discontent, as when a lady residing at Langley priory had
twelve dogs who used to follow her into church and made a great uproar!

Theories of interest and probability


The seventeenth century began to see personal risk placed on a more scientific basis. Compound
interest was studied, which was important later in establishing how much investment income could be
earned by the assets of insurance and pension funds. Probability theory emerged with a publication in
1657 by the Dutch mathematician, Christian Huygens. He showed that, in order to have p chances of
obtaining a sum of money A and q chances of obtaining a sum of money B, it is worth paying a sum
equal to (pA+qB) divided by (p+q).

The Bills of Mortality


Another important advance came in 1662 from a surprising source, a London draper called John
Graunt. His great achievement was to show the regularities of the patterns of life and death in a group
of people, despite uncertainty about the future lifetime of only one person. He had the original idea of
making a statistical analysis of the London Bills of Mortality. These had been published for many

years, week by week, to warn wealthy householders when the plague was increasing, so that they
could leave London in time.

Graunts life table


Although the age at death was not recorded in the Bills Graunt analysed, every Bill did record the
number of people dying from each cause of death. Since some causes of death applied mainly to
young children, he deduced that about 36% of the total number of deaths related to children dying
before age six. This was the starting point for his famous life table, which showed how many of every
100 babies survived until ages 6, 16, 26, 36, 46, ... etc. Unfortunately the table did not give a realistic
representation of true survival rates, because the figures for ages after 6 had to be guessed. Graunt
also estimated the population of London, which was often said to run into millions, as 384,000. This is
thought nowadays to have been quite accurate another remarkable achievement.

Creation of actuarial science


It now became possible for the first time to envisage setting up an insurance scheme providing life
assurance or pensions for a group of people, where it could be worked out how much money each
person in the group should contribute to a common fund assumed to earn a fixed rate of interest.
The first person to demonstrate publicly how this could be done was Edmond Halley, the famous
mathematician and astronomer, after whom the comet is named. The Royal Society in London asked
Halley to analyse some data collected by Caspar Neumann, a clergyman of Breslau in Germany,
relating to the births and deaths in that city between 1687 and 1691. Unlike the London data, the
Breslau data were classified by age, and this enabled more accurate survival rates at each age to be
obtained. Halley used the data in 1693 to construct his own life table (for individual ages, not just age
groups), which was found to give a reasonably accurate picture of survival and became well known
throughout Europe.
Most important, however, was the method which Halley demonstrated of using his life table to work out
how much money someone of a given age should pay to purchase a life-annuity. Halley examined
each future annual instalment of the annuity separately and used his life table to estimate the
probability that the person would survive to receive that instalment. The resulting probability was
multiplied by the sum (obtained from a compound interest table at a specified rate of interest) which
would need to be invested now in order to pay for that instalment if one were certain to receive it.
Halley then went on to do likewise for the next instalment, and so on. Summing these present values
for all future instalments up to the end of life then gave the value of the whole annuity. Actuarial
science had been created.

The Equitable
The first life assurance company to use premium rates which were calculated scientifically for longterm life policies was The Equitable, founded in 1762. The techniques used to calculate these

premiums were developed from Halley's method by James Dodson, a London mathematician. The
company still exists, though it has run into difficulties recently. Many other life assurance companies
and pension funds were created over the following 200 years.

Actuaries
It was The Equitable which first used the term 'actuary' for its chief executive officer in 1762. Previously
the use of the term had been restricted to an official who recorded the decisions, or acts, of
ecclesiastical courts!

The Institute of Actuaries


In 1848 the actuaries of a number of life assurance companies established the Institute of Actuaries.
Its objects were stated to be the development and improvement of the mathematical theories upon
which the practice of life insurance is based, and the collection and arrangement of data connected
with the subjects of duration of life, health and finance. Another object was the improvement and
diffusion of knowledge, and the establishment of correct principles relating to subjects involving
monetary considerations and probability. Thus even so long ago, the Institute's objectives were by no
means confined to life assurance. It was clearly envisaged that actuarial science would have wider
applications, as has proved to be the case.

The Faculty of Actuaries


In 1856 the Scots in the Institute decided to form the Faculty of Actuaries in Scotland and that body
remains the Scottish counterpart of the Institute to this day. The Faculty was, in fact, first to receive the
honour of being incorporated by Royal Charter in 1868; the Institute became a chartered body in 1884.
For many years, however, the two legally separate bodies have worked as one supporting the UK
actuarial profession.

Adapted from an article in 'Inside Careers 2003-2004' by Chris Lewin