A few years ago, I attended a seminar by a researcher on aging. He explained what goes on when a person ages and also what kinds of behaviors can shorten or prolong life. Towards the end of the talk he showed a slide of a smiling older woman whom he identified as a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment who died in 1997 at the age of 122 and held the record for being the world’s oldest person ever. Calment would tell people that her ‘secret’ was that she drank and smoked, thus defying the best medical advice. The researcher used that amusing anecdote to illustrate that one can always find outliers for any statistical result.
So I was intrigued when I recently came across this article by Lauren Collins that explored the allegation that Calment was a fraud. Her daughter Yvonne reportedly died in 1934 of tuberculosis and left behind her husband Colonel Joseph Billot, and a seven-year-old son Freddy. Jeanne moved in with her son-in-law and grandson after her daughter died. Some allege that Jeanne was actually Yvonne who took on her mother’s identity after she died.
Suspicions about her age were aroused in 2018.
The first public attack on Jeanne Calment’s authenticity appeared in the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, in November, 2018. In an interview, Valery Novoselov, a geriatrician and the director of the gerontology chapter of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, announced his intention to disprove Calment’s claim to the longevity title. A burly former doctor in the Russian Army, Novoselov said that he had been looking at some photographs of Calment and found that she simply didn’t display the physical characteristics one would expect of a person her age. “In the picture of 110-year-old Jeanne, I see a strong lady a little younger than 90,” he declared.
Novoselov and a mathematician Nikolay Zak took it upon themselves to prove that Calmet was a fraud.
Part of the suspicions arose because Jeanne’s stories about her life had inconsistencies and kept changing.
Later in life, Calment claimed to have known Vincent van Gogh, telling different versions of an encounter with him in 1888. “Van Gogh was very ugly. Ugly like a louse,” she once remembered. “We called him le dingo.” According to one anecdote, van Gogh came into her family’s drygoods store, on Rue Gambetta, wanting to buy canvas. Calment sometimes said that her father waited on him. Her father, however, was a shipbuilder; the store actually belonged to her husband’s family. Another time Calment recalled, “My husband said to him, ‘I present to you my wife.’ ” This recollection was also blurred: Calment, an adolescent in 1888, didn’t marry for another eight years.
There were the van Gogh stories, in which she’d mixed up her husband and her father. In addition, Calment had told her validators that she had been escorted to school by a maid named Marthe Touchon. Census documents confirmed that a Marthe worked for the Calment family in the early nineteen-hundreds. She was listed as Marthe Fousson, a variation on the name that seemed reasonable, given that Calment had difficulty enunciating at the end of her life. Yet, when Zak tracked down Fousson’s birth certificate, he found an odd discrepancy: Marthe Fousson was ten years younger than Jeanne Calment and thus couldn’t very well have taken her to school.
Collins went to the region of France where Calment lived and tried to get to the truth by speaking to everyone who might know about her life but getting the facts proved to be remarkably elusive. Her article reads like a detective story. She also spoke with Novoselov and Zak and they seem to be obsessed with proving that Calment was a fraud and built elaborate theories as to how she pulled it off and why. But the problem is that when confronted with evidence that contradicted their theory, they would then create another theory. That is usually a sign of a weak case, where the people are letting the conclusion they desire drive their thinking.
After an exhaustive examination of all the many possible theories surrounding Calment, Collins comes to the conclusion that it is unlikely that the mother-daughter switch could have taken place undetected and that hence Calment can plausibly claim the title of the person who lived the longest life.