Jeanne Calment was 122 when she died. But last year a Russian scientist claimed she was a con artist, triggering an international dispute over the woman who may still maintain the secret to eternal life

If time makes chumps of us all, you couldn’t blame Andre-Francois Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a solicitor in the southern French city of Arles, thought he had hit on the real-estate version of a sure thing. The 47 -year-old had signed a contract to buy an accommodation from one of his patrons” en viager “: a formation of belonging auction by which the buyer makes a monthly payment until the seller’s death, when the dimension becomes theirs. His client, Jeanne Calment, was 90 and sprightly for her age; she liked to surprise parties by leaping from her chair at the hairdresser. But still, it couldn’t be long: Raffray precisely had to shell out 2,500 francs a month and wait it out.

He never got to live there. Raffray died in 1995, aged 77, by which time Calment was 120 and one of the most famous women in France. She hadn’t lives in the rooms she owned above the Maison Calment, the drapery shop once run by her husband in the heart of Arles, for a decade. Instead, as each birthday poke her further into the realm of the improbable, Calment contained tribunal at La Maison du Lac, the retirement home next to the city hospital. She had no immediate family- her husband, daughter and grandson were long dead- but correspondents and local noticeables would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 years to be famous. I mean to represent the best possible use of it ,” she was reported to have said. One defendant article was recounting how, as a boy, “shes had” encountered Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and locals called him” the dingo “.

The pensioner appeared anointed with the staman of Methuselah. Still cycling at 100, she only gave up smoking at 117; her doctors concluded that she had a mental capacity equivalent to most octogenarians. Enough, at any rate, to coin the curious zinger:” I wait for death … and reporters ,” she once told a reporter. Aged 121, she recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. But even this “Michael Jordan of ageing”, as one geriatrician made it, had only so much road to run. By 1996, she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, predominantly blind and deaf, she lastly succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest confirmed human lifespan in history.

At
At 121, Jeanne Calment liberated a rap CD, Mistress Of Time:’ I waited 110 years to be famous. I mean to stir the best possible use of it .’ Photograph: Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Some, though, believe it’s not just day that attains clowns of us all. Last year, a Russian mathematician called Nikolay Zak made an astonishing claim: that it was not Jeanne Calment who died in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne. Sceptical about the degree to which Calment had surpassed previous record-holders( the very near verified claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her profile and uncovered a legion of inconsistencies. First published on Researchgate, a technical social networking locate, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s newspaper claimed that Jeanne Calment are really died in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this place, Zak alleged, her daughter assume responsibility for her identity- they searched similar- and she to be maintained the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper proceeded viral, the French press exploded. How dare someone slur a national treasure, the woman dubbed “ la doyenne de l’humanite “? And who was this upstart Russian anyway? Zak wasn’t even a gerontologist, functional specialists in ageing, but a 36 -year-old mathematics graduate who worked as a glassblower at Moscow State University and hadn’t published a newspaper in 10 years.

Zak redoubled down with a view to responding. He produced an expanded paper in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It compiled a dossier of 17 bits of biographical exhibit supporting the ” swap ” speculation, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old Jeanne( a change in eye colour from “dark” to light-green) and divergences in the verbal testimonies she generated while in the retirement home: she claimed to have met Van Gogh in her father’s shop, when Jeanne’s father had been a shipbuilder. He likewise claimed there had been no public festivity of Jeanne’s 100 th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak declared, there was no smoking gun; but together these portions of circumstantial proof did emit a fair amount of fume. Crucially, he intimated a plausible motive: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s region so as to avoid punishing inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period passed as high-pitched as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological circles, is getting more and more heated. Many rejected Zak’s switch assumption as Russian-sponsored” forge information”, as the newspaper Le Parisien gave it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak expressed uncertainty about the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian insurance bureau director who had died in 1999, aged 119, putting her in the silver-medal position behind Calment. Was the Russian trying to sow doubt, so that his countrymen could take the lead in the gerontology plain?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of local pride. They quickly rallied behind Calment and organized a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to dismantle Zak’s declarations. Their members included Calment’s distant relatives, and others who had known her; although some said she had been haughty and waspish, they didn’t want her honour sullied. They had easy access to the city’s repositories, while Zak had never been to Arles: what could he know? He killed back, on their open counter-investigation forum: perhaps the “Arlesiens” has only just been blinded by their allegiances.” Note that from a distance it is obvious that the Earth is not flat ,” he wrote.

Both camps were equally adamant. One, that the woman who died in the Maison du Lac was the longest-lived human being. The other, that she was a endowed and almost inconceivably decided con artist. Which was the real Madame Calment?

***

An age of 122 seems to defy the limits of the possible. Even two decades later, with average lifespans still rising , no one has come within touching distance of Jeanne Calment. In the supercentenarian tournament- 110 and above- the three-year gap between her and Knauss might as well be an aeon.

In 1825, the British actuary Benjamin Gompertz came up with a prognosi prototype for human fatality, one which estimated that the risk of death increased exponentially with age, doubling every eight years. His “Gompertz curve” was quickly taken up by the insurance industry. In the year after a 100 th birthday, the chance of death is roughly 50%. Knowing this, Calment’s record looks even more of a statistical long shot.

In Arles’s Trinquetaille cemetery, there is little to mark out the person with the world’s longest luck fleck, apart from the small book-shaped plinth impressed ” La doyenne de l’humanite “ on her tomb. When I visit in the last days of August, summertime has checked out early; the sky is overcast, the first autumn leaves are on the floor. On the mottled, dark-grey marble of Calment’s lineage crypt stands a cup of sham chrysanthemums and a yellowing succulent. Curiously, Joseph Billot, Jeanne’s son-in-law and Yvonne’s husband, and her grandson Frederic Billot are recognized, but her daughter is not. Yet the cemetery champion, in a shack a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

Colette
Tintype portraits of Calment’s allies, who all quarrel the hoax conjecture, from left. Colette Barbe, Brigitte Jajcaj and Cecile Pellegrin. Photograph: Jonathan Pierredon/ The Guardian

In a hotel garden-variety next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I satisfy three a number of members of the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems odd that Jeanne did not introduced her own daughter’s epithet on the family tomb; was it Yvonne who decided not to, trying to tell us she was still alive?” Oh, so you followed her all the way to the cemetery, then ?” jokes Barbe. Don’t overthink it, the women say. The tomb wasn’t refurbished until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a gondola crash ); by then, Yvonne had fucking dead for 30 times, and Jeanne only had the most recent demises engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of detectives: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, sardonic talker whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s first Asian eatery; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a lift shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a series around her neck; Barbe is a strong-minded bourgeoisie, vibrantly attired and draped in jewellery. The counter-investigation has 1,500 members, drawn from all over the globe, although the core group is made up of proud locals. “[ Calment] was this elegant lady, even with a cane- an emblem of Arles ,” says Jajcaj.” She maintained herself perfectly upright at 102, which was beautiful .”

Soon after Zak’s paper was published, the group began to scour neighbourhood archives for evidence that eroded his theory. Distant members of the Calment and Billot class been set up their photo albums and personal newspapers. In the minds of the open debate, Zak was also consented on to the forum, where he to be maintained a guiding commentary on the new observes. He was collegiate on the surface, recognizing that he and the counter-investigation had a shared point: the truth. But over period they felt his attitude- expecting people chase after evidence on his behalf, unfailingly exploiting it to back up his working theory- begin to rankle.” Sometimes I gives the impression that he believed to be understands our way of life and history better than us ,” says Barbe.

But digging into the past began to pay dividends. One brand-new picture donated by a family member showed Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with mailing-cards and Google Maps discovered it to be part of the Belvedere sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland- consistent with Yvonne’s diagnosis of pleurisy, often a evidence of tuberculosis. Another document seemed to confirm the gravity of her health: her husband, Joseph, an legion colonel, was granted five years of compassionate leave in June 1928 to look after her. Unfortunately, the sanitorium closed in 1960, and its records haven’t survived.

If the swap did take place, maintaining this story in plain sight would have asked an extraordinary and queasy rank of cheat. Yvonne would have had to share a house with Jeanne’s widower, Fernand, her own papa, until his death in 1942; Fernand would have had to pass his daughter off as his wife. Yvonne would have had to force her son Frederic, seven when ” Jeanne” died, to stop calling her “Maman”.

Many others would need to have been complicit. If Zak knew either the people of Arles or Jeanne Calment, the group argued, he would realise how implausible this was. A scheme would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit population of 20, 000, and unlikely given Mme Calment’s reputation as a “dragon”, says Pellegrini.” If people had known about the fraud, they wouldn’t have protected her ,” she says.

Perhaps the most important blow from the counter-investigation group- not quite a mortal one, but close- was criticizing Zak’s opinion of a fiscal incitement. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% inheritance tax, but the group’s experiment passed them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a frequency the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s substantial assets.

But Zak refused to budge. Exclusively a DNA test, either from Trinquetaille cemetery or a test of Calment’s blood, rumoured to be stored in a Paris research institute, would adjudicate the matter, he argued. But the status of women from the counter-investigation group believe he has gone too far down the rabbit pit to consider any conjecture but his own.” Even if[ a DNA test] proves it was Jeanne, he’ll never consented it ,” says Pellegrini.” He’ll say the tests were rigged .”

***

There is some debate about what happens to charges of mortality in extreme old age. Some investigates believe they continue to rise with the Gompertz curve, until the risk of death in a opened year is absolute- with an effective ceiling to human rights somewhere between 119 and 129. Others believe there is no such ceiling, thanks to a phenomenon known as” mortality deceleration “: the plateauing of the death rate after 105. But there are doubts about this plateau, more, due to the frequent misreporting of supercentenarians( largely due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few cases wrongdoings can skew our understanding of human restraints( the Gerontology Research Group, based in Los Angeles, estimates that there are about 1,000 living supercentenarians ).

The validation of Jeanne Calment’s age, though, is regarded as the” amber standard” by Jean-Marie Robine, the man who helped carry it out. I fill him at his home in the village of Pignan, simply west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine card abruptlies under his kitchen counter, the researcher still has matinee-idol looks at 68. His work with Calment, carried out as a demographer for the French government organisation Inserm( L’Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale ),” never had validating her age as a mandate ,” he illustrates.” It was to validate the quality of the administrative documents that attested to her age. And from what we had at our disposal, “theres nothing” dubious .” He parts at the unbroken chain of 30 censuses- every five years up until 1946, then every seven to eight- that recount Jeanne Calment’s life in Arles.

Only one- the 1931 census- was mystifying. Yvonneis not listed as resident in the family’s Arles apartment, which Zak takes to mean that she was already living semi-secluded in the family’s country house, 10 miles away in the hamlet of Paradou. He is suggested that she would masquerade as her mom, in order that Jeanne, the one who was really suffering from tuberculosis, could avoid the disease’s social stigma. Robine has a simpler explanation: that Yvonne was at the sanatorium at Leysin.

He is scathing about the Russian conjecture, flatly dismissing it as “pseudo-science”. But he and his co-validator, Michel Allard, have been criticised by Zak, and by some on the counter-investigation forum, for not being more thorough in their own corroborations. They did, nonetheless, behavior a series of nearly 40 interrogations with Calment at the Maison du Lac, asking for details of her life that exclusively she would know. She made some slips, unsurprisingly for her age, often mixing up her parent and partner.( Zak hopped on such mistakes in excerpts of the records later be made available in a book .) But many other details, such as the names of damsels and teachers, primarily tallied with the information recorded under censuses and school registers.

Robine is softly spoken, but it is hard to get a word in edgeways as he improves his argument. I mention the idea that a DNA test on Calment’s blood could decide the debate. Jeanne’s husband Fernand was her distant cousin, so Yvonne had more ancestors common to both sides of her family than her father- something that would be visible in her DNA. Robine can just hold back his indignation at the proposal of DNA testing.” What are we going to do- exactly hand it over to the Russians? To an international commission? To do what? These people are caught up in magical reasoning- that the secret of longevity is in her genes .”

***

By August 2019, l’affaire Calment had settled into a standstill. When I speak to Zak over Skype at his dacha on the Ukrainian border, he seems more determined than ever:” With so much opposition, I want to prove that I am right ,” he says. There is a flash of intellectual pride behind his poker-face. Boyish in a blue sport shirt with disheveled fuzz, a slight smile occasionally interrupts his equanimity.” Some people don’t care about facts. So they just hate those who disagree with them ,” he shrugs.

Russian
Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak at Moscow University, Nov 2019. Zak am of the view that Jeanne Calment been killed in 1934, and that it was her daughter, Yvonne, who died in 1997. Photograph: Maxim Sher/ The Guardian

Gerontology had originally been a hobby for Zak. He was interested in the ageing process of the naked mole-rat, an animal with an improbably long lifespan of about 30 times. But he became caught up in the Calment case after becoming contact on Facebook with Valery Novoselov, head of gerontology at the Moscow Society of Naturalists( MOIP ), who had longstanding doubts about her. Novoselov’s action had been based mainly on photographic analysis; he fostered Zak, who has spoken some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival testify. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” “hes had” knew.” He always had some pretext about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that obliged me carry on .”( Robine quarrels that he was evasive, “says hes” equated extensively with Zak in October 2018.)

Meanwhile, others were beginning to have doubts about Zak and Novoselov. Robert Young, who confirms supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, guesses the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate is trying to sow doubt about western scientific methods, amounting to” academic hoax “. He points to what he sees as Zak’s obstinate refusal to consider any scenario other than the button belief.” Portion of the technical testing procedure is that we need to be open to multiple possibilities, including that one’s own position may be wrong ,” Young says.” Yet he self-declares his position to be 99.9% particular .” Zak bars that he has fully analysed the opposite scenario- that Jeanne was Jeanne- in follow-up work this year, and rebuffs accusations of fraud.

As well as the absence of academic rigour in the original article, Young believes its disproportionately high number of speaks( 70,000, when the revised version only got 1,400) might have been inflated by bots, or human intervention. Zak had already admitted manipulating photographsof a young Yvonne Calment to emphasise similarities with her father. Young alleges that such sleights of hand indicate that Zak, or people working with him, had an ulterior agenda.

Still, the button camp had arguments that couldn’t readily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd petition, when Arles’s archives asked for them, that her personal articles be burned; and a 2006 note in a French industry newspaper of a dinner at which a client insinuated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity swap, but no act had been taken because she was already too famed. In mid-September, Inserm secreted an official rebuttal paper, co-authored by Robine, Allard and two others. While it didn’t address every aspect of the Russian case, it was a cool riposte, summarising many of the counter-investigation’s discoveries, and announcing for the formal retraction of Zak’s paper.

Zak upped the bet. In an open note sent to prominent gerontologists, longevity canadian researchers and writers- with Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and the White House CCed- he called again for the testing of Calment’s DNA.” I don’t think such a study would be harmful to anybody ,” he insisted,” while the potential benefits for science are huge .” Many parties reckoned Zak had gone too far. One a member of the council of Rejuvenation Research, which had published his revised article, vacated, saying it had” dishonor the field of gerontology in both Russia and internationally “.

Back in Arles, the counter-investigation group were also wondering about the singular behaviour of their “Russian friend”. He had been helpful at first, but in the extents of long remark strands he could often be provoking, even goading. One member succeeded in getting Zak temporarily blocked from members of the forum on 5 March for a slanging match that culminated in the Russian calling him a “crook”. ” It’s very unpredictable ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” Sometimes he has a sense of humour, other days he’s odious, and we’re forced to block him for a few cases eras .” They speculate that more than one person might be using his account, and that Zak or the Zaks might be paid trolls.( Zak disclaims receiving any payment or substantiate from others .) But if Zak is a frontman, which are able to he be fronting for?

***

The theory that the Calment attack has been politically steered is rejected by Novoselov, the gerontologist who tasked Zak with probing her.” Look , no one in Russia maintenances at all about this story ,” he says.” They couldn’t care less. There ought to have two clauses in the media, and that’s it .” Novoselov says he is simply following his scientific inclinations, and compares the French affection to Calment to the national cult of Joan of Arc.” Their ability to believe in such fairytales is one of the fundamental reasons behind the establishment of this[ longevity] record .”

The straight-talking 57 -year-old is speaking in the canteen at the Research facility for Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, where he has just given a lecture on Calment. Having previously argued that Lenin died of syphilis rather than a stroking, Novoselov is used to courting controversy. In January, he declared that his goal was to get Calment struck off the supercentenarians register. Wasn’t it cavalier to do so before there was conclusive evidence?” What’s conclusive evidence if there is no material from the patient ?” he counters.” If they showed us her medical record, then maybe we would be convinced .”

Aubrey
Aubrey De Grey, in California. He belief humen could live to 5,000, and requires Calment’s DNA tested. Photograph: Carlos Chavarria/ Redux/ eyevine

Novoselov wrote to Young at Guinness World Records about Calment in October 2018,” asking him to look attentively at the questions we caused “. His response, says Novoselov, was ” a showing of invasion by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his cultivate as a conspiracy led from on high by” person important “. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has warned Young, as well as Calment’s validators, with investigation by Sledkom, the Russian FBI.

The evidence for a Russian disinformation campaign is thin, but Zak’s article did have a second sponsor. The peer-reviewed version was published in Rejuvenation Research, the journal devoted to life-extension research revised by Aubrey de Grey, the controversial gerontologist and life-extension advocate who has claimed that, by 2100, the human lifespan could contact 5,000 times. Even if Zak doesn’t believe it, the possibility that Calment did reach 122 is tantalising for De Grey.” Anyone who is the world record holder of longevity are of concern to the interests of any of us studying the biology of ageing ,” he tells me.

Speaking on the phone from London, where he is on a stopover between Berlin and his home in California, De Grey is evasive about whether his strategy is to force the liberate of Calment’s blood sample. But he does think it should be made available for science:” In the interests of saving lives, used to identify more about ageing to eventually defer ageing- then that’s actually quite important .” Would he want his own research foundation, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not inevitably, he says,” but I would certainly are aware of the right kind of researchers to recommend “.

That analysis seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The Fondation Jean Dausset, a private genetic experiment core in Paris, refuses even to confirm that it is keeping Jeanne Calment’s blood; just that it has a collection of biosamples it alone can use for research under anonymised provisions. But Francois Schachter, the scientist who in the 1990 s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic examination of centenarians in the world, has confirmed that her blood was taken and her DNA extracted.

Twenty years ago, the life-extension field promoted by mavericks like De Grey was outlawed science. Now, the landscape has changed: the technical means for ” hacking ” the human lifespan have come into being, and the sector is beginning to attract serious speculation. In 2013, Google invested $1.5 bn in an entire separation, Calico, devoted to” solving fatality “. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Sens.

But Sens, are in accordance with its annual reports, has been running at heavy damages. De Grey says it has been spending the $13 m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing regimen that will save” various million” lives. But it must start to pay its channel; wouldn’t locking the DNA of the oldest woman in the world be a great publicity coup, as death-dodging tech billionaires pile into the sector? De Grey at-bats off this idea.” I get enough media attention as it is .”

If he could study Calment’s DNA, what might he expect to learn? De Grey points out that supercentenarians’ genetic material contains a high ratio of useful information,” because they have to get more things right in order to get to the age they do “. One obvious region of interest is how Calment bypassed cancer, congestive heart failure, diabetes and other late-life killers.

Several scientists I spoke to believe that Calment’s genome should be made available for study; but they don’t approve of the way Zak and De Grey have seemingly attempted to force the foundation’s handwriting. One repercussion of promoting the switch theory, they point out, is that they have alienated family members whose own DNA might be crucial for a clearer understanding of Calment’s.

Earlier this month, a Russian news organization announced that a woman who was purportedly 123 have been killed in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia. This is almost certainly hopeless- even Novoselov thinks so; leaved her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50 s. But the narration underlines the need for gerontology to keep its house in order.

At the time of going to press, scientists all over the world were due to discuss the impact of the Calment affair on gerontology at a special meeting in Paris. As for her mortal remains, some feel the Fondation Jean Dausset might be more open to collaboration as anti-ageing science evolves- but it is unlikely to be with De Grey. Despite telling me that Jeanne Calment does not figure high on his priorities, he plans to devote another matter of Rejuvenation Research to age validation and Calment next year.

In Arles, despite everything, the counter-investigation group are tickled by the idea that Jeanne Calment might have been a employer fraudster.” I would really like the switching floor to be true, like in the tales I affection speaking ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true, she was really something !” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to educate the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what additional misfortune would 5,000 years of existence creating, if we can’t get the record straight on a single everyday lifetime?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

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