The greatest surety: a brief history of life insurance

Few things in the modern world can claim to trace their history back 2,000 years – but life insurance can

Here’s a potted history of this vital line of insurance, tracing its roots back through all those centuries to its ancient beginnings.

100 BC

Life insurance can trace its history all the way back to the ‘burial clubs’ of Ancient Rome. Romans believed that failing to bury people properly was a bad omen for the afterlife, so troops would regularly contribute to burial funds to help pay the cost of their funerals, and, later, a stipend upon death.


The earliest example of life insurance appears to be William Gibbons, a salt merchant in London, whose acquaintances took out a policy on his life in 1583. When he died in the final month of the policy, the underwriters tried to avoid paying out but were unsuccessful in court.


The first life insurance policies in the US were designed to assist the families of Presbyterian ministers after they died. The funds were originally criticised for being in poor taste, but they provided much-needed relief to widows and paved the way for America’s insurance industry to grow over the next 100 years.


By the 19th Century, life insurance was big business. In the 1820s, the author Sir Walter Scott – himself a director of an insurance company in Scotland – took out three life insurance policies totalling £6,000 (over £500,000 in today’s money). 20 years later, Charles Dickens insured his life with Eagle Insurance in London for £5,000.


In the 1940s, the legs of Hollywood actress Betty Grable were insured on the Lloyd’s market by her movie studio for US$1mn – a staggering amount of money at the time. It was all part of a publicity stunt for one of the world’s most recognisable stars, but it set a precedent for insuring body parts that continues to this day.


The invention of Apple’s iPhone and other smartphones opened a new frontier for insurance. Although insurers have been generally slow to modernise, the internet and smartphones have led to a flurry of successful insurtech firms – and embedded insurance means that the future of insurance sits at consumers’ fingertips.


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