England provides a rare opportunity to study familial status over many generations. Surnames were established in the country by the 1300s, and genealogical records date back well into the Middle Ages. Clark and his colleague, Neil Cummins, of the London School of Economics used multiple databases, including parish records and legal documents, to ferret out rare English surnames. They then compared the proportion of these rare names in the general population to the proportion of rare names of students at Oxford and Cambridge universities dating back to 1170.

The proportions allowed the researchers to pinpoint elite names, like Agassiz, Brickdale and Cheslyn, all of which were overrepresented at Oxford and Cambridge. Non-elite names, which rarely popped up in the student rolls at those schools, included Allbert, Arfman and Clemishaw.

The researchers first found the overrepresented elite names in student rolls dating back to about 1800. Then, they tracked those rare surnames forward and back in time and found that the familial pattern held through centuries: An elite family in 1800 was likely still elite in 1600 and in 2000, too. A surname’s initial status can easily persist for 20 to 30 generations, or 600 to 900 years, the researchers reported Nov. 15 in the journal Human Nature.