Jeanne Louise Calment was 122 years and 164 days old when she died in 1997. Her outsized lifespan instantly put the socialite from Arles, France, into the history books as the oldest officially documented person to ever live.
Calment’s longevity has since inspired a healthy debate among scientists as to whether she was just an extreme outlier or if humans really do have the potential to naturally reach such old age. But there’s another explanation for Calment’s record-breaking life that is now being explored: was it was built on a lie?
That’s the gist of the new paper published on ResearchGate and presented at a recent gerontology meeting by Nikolay Zak of the Moscow Center For Continuous Mathematical Education. The Russian researchers claim that Calment, in fact, died at the age of 59 in 1934, and her daughter, Yvonne, assumed her identity after the fact to avoid inheritance taxes, and was thus the one who died in 1997 at the impressive-but-not-record-breaking age of 99.
Zak’s evidence comes from combing through documentary evidence of Jeanne’s life and closely examining the interviews she gave. There is no smoking gun, however, and the evidence he produces is largely circumstantial. He points to photos where the mother and daughter appear to resemble one another more closely than previously published images might suggest. A passport issued to Jeanne in the 1930s contradicts her eye color and height recorded later in her life.
Yvonne was the one who is listed as dying in 1934 of pneumonia. At the time, she left behind her son, Frédéric, and her husband, Joseph Charles Frédéric Billot. After Yvonne’s death, Jeanne began living with them. Billot and Jeanne, apparently, got along great, and he never remarried, despite being only 42 when his wife died, which, Zak contends, may have simply been because he was, in fact, still living with his wife.
He also points to an interview in which Jeanne names a maid who used to take her to school. However, according to the records, that maid was ten years younger than she was, and had actually escorted Yvonne to school. Yvonne's death certificate was also signed by a woman "sans profession," not by medical doctor or coroner.
According to Elena Milova at the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation, which crowdfunds projects designed to combat disease and aging, the investigation was instigated by Valery Novoselov, assistant professor of the Department of Gerontology and Geriatrics of RUDN University, who is known for studying medical documents to investigate the deaths of famous Russians (the list includes such heavyweights as Vladimir Lenin). In an interview, he says that he became suspicious when he noticed just how far off Jeanne was from the normal curve of statistical models of centenarians and super-centenarians that have been published in recent years. He also says that her abilities and the condition of her skin in photos did not correspond with what would be expected for a 122 year old. “As a doctor I always had doubts about her age,” he tells AFP. “The state of her muscle system was different from that of her contemporaries. She could sit up without any support. She had no signs of dementia."
Zak’s work has pointed out many small inconsistencies in Jeanne’s story. The fact that she had her family archival material destroyed is also a red flag. And there's one more piece of evidence that’s yet to be examined; in a 2007 French book on the insurance industry, the author alleges a company paying Jeanne an annuity suspected that she was actually her daughter and had committed insurance fraud, but suppressed the finding since, by that point, she was already regarded as a national hero.
Not everyone is convinced by these theories. Jean-Marie Robine, a gerontologist who helped to validate Jeanne’s age in the 1990s, tells Le Parisien the evidence is flimsy at best. “All of this is incredibly shaky and rests on nothing,” he says, pointing out that Jeanne was able to answer questions only she would have known the answers too, like the name of her math teacher, when he interviewed her. “Her daughter couldn’t have known that.”
He also says there’s no way the whole city of Arles could have been in on the conspiracy. “Can you imagine how many people would have lied? Overnight, Fernand Calment [Jeanne’s husband] would have passed his daughter [off] for his wife and everyone would have kept silent? It is staggering,” Robine says.
Zak writes in the paper that Jeanne spent much of her time in the 1930s outside of the city of Arles. The disruptions of the 1930s and 1940s, would have been an opportune time to solidify her new identify. “World War II brought chaos with it, and after the war, it all settled as if Madame Calment was always Madame Jeanne Calment,” he writes.
Whether or not the claim is true—and it will require much more evidence to prove the case or even exhumation of both bodies—such a longevity switcheroo is not unprecedented. Tristin Hopper at the Calgary Herald reports that in 1814, a Quebec man Pierre Joubert died at the age of 113, making him the world’s oldest man. His age was even verified by government statisticians. However, it turned out that Joubert had the same name as his father, and the two records were conflated. Other similar cases have been found in South America, where the names of parents and children have been confused.
If Jeanne is unseated as the world’s oldest woman, the title will pass to American Sarah Knauss from Pennsylvania, who was 119 years and 97 days old when she died in 1999.