A Story about Bertrand Russell’s Plane Crash

In the past few days, a video has been circulating of an interview where Bertrand Russell credits smoking with saving his life.1

Russell explains:

In fact, you know, on one occasion [smoking] saved my life. I was in an airplane, a man was getting a seat for me, and I said, “Get me a seat in the smoking part, because if I can’t smoke I shall die.” And sure enough there was an accident, a bad accident,2 and all the people in the non-smoking part of the plane were drowned, and the people in the smoking part jumped into the Norwegian fjord where we’d landed, and we were saved. So I owe my life to smoking.

I have a family anecdote to share about this incident. In 1948, my grandfather, Richard Kinsey, was a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton. In a seminar that fall, a professor asked each student for their views on philosophy. My grandfather “rashly but with conviction” (in his words) said that he considered Bertrand Russell the greatest living philosopher. Later that day, he found out that a plane with Russell was down, leaving it for some time doubtful that his description of Russell as a living philosopher was accurate.

Several years later, my grandfather wrote Russell to tell him the story. Russell’s response was:

Thank you for your very charming letter. I am glad that at least one of the adjectives you applied to me in 1948 is still applicable.3

This response seems consistent with Ray Monk’s characterization of the older Russell as the type to make “wittily self-deprecating remarks” of this sort (e.g., “My brain is not what it was. I’m past my best — & therefore, of course, I am now celebrated.”). This contrasts with his earlier behavior. Monk quotes Virginia Woolf’s diaries: “Bertie is a fervid egoist, which helps matters.” And Russell wrote the following on modesty in his 1919 essay Dreams and Facts: “Modesty, the correlative of politeness, consists in pretending not to think better of ourselves and our belongings than of the man we are speaking to and his belongings.”

I recommend taking a look at Monk’s excerpt (see also Sylvia Nasar’s review of it), which describe an interesting shift in character: the young Russell, a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, turning into a rather fallen and mediocre, if celebrated, older man.

  1. I found this on Andrew Sullivan, who got the link from 3 Quarks Daily
  2. This was the Bukken Bruse disaster, a plane crash that killed 19 people. 
  3. I’ve put a scan of the original letter from Russell, along with my grandfather’s description, here (warning, large file).