Millvina Dean was nine weeks old when her mother lowered her into one of the Titanic’s lifeboats in a canvas mail sack. For most of her 97 years on this earth she struggled with the fascination others held for her story. Dean died Sunday in Southampton, England — the Titanic’s port of departure in 1912 — the “unsinkable” ocean liner’s last surviving passenger. She also was the final human link to an era of hubris, before two world wars and the Holocaust, when people believed they could solve the world’s problems — embodied in a ship of steel that couldn’t be sunk.
Dean lived in obscurity for decades after the tragedy. She lived quietly mainly because she didn’t want to be seen as attracting attention to herself and because everything she knew about the Titanic disaster was told her by her mother. “Nobody knew about me and the Titanic, to be honest, nobody took any interest, so I took no interest either,” she told The New York Times last month. “But then they found the wreck (in 1985), and after they found the wreck, they found me.”
It was a bittersweet sea change in the life of a woman who considered herself “such an ordinary person,” as Dean told The Times. The wreck’s discovery, then the blockbuster 1997 movie (which she never saw) raised her profile but also brought painful reminders of the loss of her father, one of Titanic’s 1,517 fatalities. Like the sinking’s other victims, he lost his life as part of the quest to build bigger, faster and stronger — in the mistaken belief nothing could outsize the ingenuity of mankind.