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

If time moves morons of us all, you couldn’t blamed Andre-Francois Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a lawyer 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 suite from one of his purchasers” en viager “: a sort of dimension sale by which the buyer makes a monthly payment until the seller’s death, when the belonging becomes theirs. His client, Jeanne Calment, was 90 and sprightly for her age; she liked to surprise beings by leaping from her chair at the hairdresser. But still, it couldn’t be long: Raffray just had to shell out 2,500 francs a few months 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 thrusting her further into the realm of the preposterous, Calment viewed 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 writers and neighbourhood conspicuous would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 years to be far-famed. I mean to make the most of it ,” she was reported to have said. One defendant portion was recounting how, as a boy, “shes had” filled Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and locals called him” the dingo “.

The pensioner sounded 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 peculiar zinger:” I wait for death … and writers ,” she formerly told a reporter. Aged 121, she recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. But even this “Michael Jordan of ageing”, as one geriatrician employed 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 ratified human lifespan in history.

At
At 121, Jeanne Calment exhausted a rap CD, Mistress Of Time:’ I waited 110 times to be far-famed. I mean to make the most of it .’ Photograph: Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Some, though, believe it’s not just season that stirs buffoons of us all. Last-place time, a Russian mathematician called Nikolay Zak made an astonishing claim: that it was not Jeanne Calment who were killed in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne. Sceptical about the degree to which Calment had outshone previous record-holders( the very near supported claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her biography and unveiled a emcee of divergences. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking area, then are caught up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s paper claimed that Jeanne Calment had actually been killed in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this level, Zak alleged, her daughter had assumed her identity- they gazed similar- and she to be maintained the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper became 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, a specialist in ageing, but a 36 -year-old mathematics graduate who worked as a glassblower at Moscow State University and hadn’t published a paper in 10 years.

Zak doubled down with a view to responding. He publicized an expanded article in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It compiled a dossier of 17 fragments of biographical sign supporting the ” switch ” assumption, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and age-old Jeanne( a change in eye emblazon from “dark” to green) and inconsistencies in the oral testimonies she afforded 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 “theres been” no public celebration of Jeanne’s 100 th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak admitted, there was no smoking gun; but together these patches of circumstantial exhibit did emit a carnival amount of inhale. Crucially, he intimated a plausible incitement: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s region in order to avoid punishing inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period moved as high-pitched as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological haloes, are always heated. Numerous rejected Zak’s swap theory as Russian-sponsored” hoax information”, as the newspaper Le Parisien placed it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak conveyed doubts about the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian policy place administrator 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 a leading role in the gerontology arena?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of local pride. They instantly rallied behind Calment and structured a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to dismantle Zak’s assertions. 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 archives, while Zak had never been to Arles: what could he know? He filmed 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 gifted and almost inconceivably resolved 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 conference- 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 prophecy simulate for human mortality, one which estimated that the risk of extinction increased exponentially with age, redoubling 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 approximately 50%. Knowing this, Calment’s record examinations 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 lucky stripe, apart from the small book-shaped plinth etched ” 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 dirt. On the mottled, dark-grey marble of Calment’s house mausoleum stands a pot of hoax chrysanthemums and a yellowing succulent. Curiously, Joseph Billot, Jeanne’s son-in-law and Yvonne’s husband, and her grandson Frederic Billot are tagged, but her daughter is not. Yet the cemetery protector, in a shack a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

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

In a hotel garden next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I satisfy three members of the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems curious that Jeanne did not gave her own daughter’s name on the family tomb; was it Yvonne who has chosen 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 status of women say. The grave wasn’t revamped until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a vehicle crash ); by then, Yvonne had fucking dead for 30 years, and Jeanne exclusively had the latest demises engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of investigators: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, ironic speaker whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s first Asian restaurant; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a rise shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a series around her cervix; 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 crest of Arles ,” says Jajcaj.” She comprised herself perfectly upright at 102, which was beautiful .”

Soon after Zak’s paper was published, the group began to scour neighbourhood repositories for proof that undercut his theory. Distant members of the Calment and Billot kinfolks opened up their photo albums and personal papers. In the minds of the open debate, Zak was also accepted on to the forum, where he to be maintained a guiding commentary on the new procures. He was collegiate on the surface, admit that he and the counter-investigation had a shared objective: the truth. But over epoch they felt his attitude- necessitating people chase after evidence on his behalf, unfailingly employing it to back up his own theory- begin to rankle.” Sometimes I get 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 photo donated by a family member pictured Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with postcards and Google Maps exposed it to be part of the Belvedere sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland- consistent with Yvonne’s diagnosis of pleurisy, often a indication of tuberculosis. Another document seemed to confirm the gravity of her plight: her husband, Joseph, an horde 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 necessary an exceptional and queasy degree of subterfuge. 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 preposterous this was. A scheme would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit population of 20, 000, and unlikely presented Mme Calment’s reputation as a “dragon”, says Pellegrini.” If people had known about the forgery, 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 assaulting Zak’s sentiment of a fiscal incitement. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% death tax, but the group’s research contributed them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a charge the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s considerable assets.

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

***

There is some debate about what happens to rates of fatality in extreme old age. Some investigates believe they continue to rise with the Gompertz curve, until possible risks of fatality in a handed 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” fatality deceleration “: the plateauing of the deaths after 105. But there are doubts about this plateau, very, due to the frequent misreporting of supercentenarians( principally due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few 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” golden standard” by Jean-Marie Robine, the man who helped carry it out. I satisfy him at his house in the village of Pignan, only west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine card abruptlies under his kitchen table, the researcher still has matinee-idol looks at 68. His work with Calment, carried out as a demographer for the French commonwealth organisation Inserm( L’Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale ),” never had validating her age as a mandate ,” he excuses.” It was to validate the quality of the administrative documents that attested to her age. And from what we had at our dumping, “theres nothing” dubious .” He objects 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 scheduled 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 kilometers away in the hamlet of Paradou. He argues that she would masquerade as her baby, 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 ideology, flatly rejecting 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 documentations. They did, however, behavior a series of roughly 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 desegregating up her father-god and spouse.( Zak climbed on such misunderstandings in excerpts of the records later be made available in a notebook .) But many other details, such as the names of damsels and schoolteachers, predominantly tallied with the information recorded under censuses and institution registers.

Robine is softly spoken, but it is hard to get a word in edgeways as he constructs his argument. I mention the idea that a DNA test on Calment’s blood could resolve the debate. Jeanne’s husband Fernand was her remote cousin, so Yvonne had more ancestors common to both sides of her family than her baby- something that would be visible in her DNA. Robine can barely hold back his indignation at the suggestion of DNA testing.” What are we going to do- only side it over to the Russians? To an international committee? To do what? These beings are caught up in supernatural deliberation- that the secret of longevity is in her genes .”

***

By August 2019, l’affaire Calment had settled into a impasse. 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 are quite right ,” he says. There is a flash of intellectual pride behind his poker-face. Boyish in a blue-blooded sport shirt with tousled whisker, a slight smile rarely interrupts his composure.” 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 claims that Jeanne Calment died 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 drawing contact on Facebook with Valery Novoselov, head of gerontology at the Moscow Society of Ecologist( MOIP ), who had longstanding doubts about her. Novoselov’s event had been based largely on photographic analysis; he fostered Zak, who spoke some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival sign. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” he had found.” He ever had some justify about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that saw me carry on .”( Robine disputes that he was evasive, saying he matched extensively with Zak in October 2018.)

Meanwhile, others were beginning to have doubts about Zak and Novoselov. Robert Young, who validates supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, feels the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate attempt to sow doubts concerning western technical procedures, amounting to” academic fraud “. He drawn attention to what he sees as Zak’s obstinate refusal to consider any scenario other than the substitution speculation.” Percentage of the technical testing procedure is that we need to be open to multiple alternatives, including that one’s starting position may be wrong ,” Young says.” Yet he self-declares his position to be 99.9% certain .” Zak counters that he has fully analysed the opposite scenario- that Jeanne was Jeanne- in follow-up work this year, and scorns the allegations of fraud.

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

Still, the switching camp had arguments that couldn’t readily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd asking, when Arles’s repositories asked to provide them, that her personal articles be burned; and a 2006 detail in a French industry newspaper of a dinner at which a guest intimated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity swap, but no activity had been taken because she was already too famed. In mid-September, Inserm exhausted an official rebuttal paper, co-authored by Robine, Allard and two others. While it didn’t address all other aspects of the Russian example, 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 letter 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 test of Calment’s DNA.” I don’t think such a study would be harmful to anybody ,” he reasoned,” while the potential benefits for science are huge .” Many parties reputed Zak had gone too far. One a member of the council of Rejuvenation Research, which had produced his revised newspaper, resigned, 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 strange the actions of their “Russian friend”. He had been helpful at first, but in the depths of long note 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 periods he’s odious, and we’re forced to block him for a few cases periods .” They speculate that more than one person might be using his account, and that Zak or the Zaks might be paid trolls.( Zak denies receiving any payment or supporter from others .) But if Zak is a frontman, who might he be fronting for?

***

The theory that the Calment attack has been politically guided is rejected by Novoselov, the gerontologist who assignment Zak with probing her.” Look , no one in Russia cautions at all about this history ,” he says.” They couldn’t care less. There have been two essays in the media, and that’s it .” Novoselov says he is simply following his technical instincts, and equates the French connect to Calment to the national cult of Joan of Arc.” Their ability to believe in such fairytales is one of the fundamental grounds behind the creation of this[ longevity] record .”

The straight-talking 57 -year-old is speaking in the canteen at the Research center 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 objective was to get Calment struck off the supercentenarians registry. Wasn’t it gallant 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 imagines humen could live to 5,000, and misses 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 issues we elevated “. His response, says Novoselov, was ” a expose of invasion by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his duty as a plot targeted from on high by” person important “. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has threatened 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 issued in Rejuvenation Research, the magazine devoted to life-extension research edited by Aubrey de Grey, the contentious gerontologist and life-extension advocate who has claimed that, by 2100, the human lifespan could reach 5,000 years. 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 those 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 exhaust of Calment’s blood test. But he does think it should be made available for science:” In the interests of saving lives, finding out more about ageing to eventually shelve ageing- then that’s actually quite important .” Would he miss his own study organization, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not necessarily, he says,” but I will definitely 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 centre 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 situations. But Francois Schachter, the scientist who in the 1990 s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic examination of centenarians in the nations of the world, has confirmed that her blood was taken and her DNA extracted.

Twenty years ago, the life-extension field promoted by dissenters like De Grey was outlaw discipline. 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 investment. In 2013, Google endowed $1.5 bn in an entire divide, Calico, devoted to” solving extinction “. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Sens.

But Sens, according to its annual reports, has been running at heavy losses. De Grey says it has been investing the $13 m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing therapies that will save” several million” lives. But it must start to pay its way; wouldn’t securing the DNA of the oldest girl 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 specifically provides that supercentenarians’ genetic textile 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 province of interest is how Calment bypassed cancer, coronary thrombosis, 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 are supportive of the space Zak and De Grey have seemingly attempted to force the foundation’s side. One upshot 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 agency has declared that a woman who was purportedly 123 had died in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia. This is almost certainly impossible- even Novoselov thinks so; given 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 from around 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 fantasize 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 anatomy high on his priorities, he plans to devote another matter of Rejuvenation Research to age validation and Calment next year.

In Arles, in spite of everything, the counter-investigation group are tickled by the idea that Jeanne Calment might have been a lord fraudster.” I would really like the permutation fib is correct, like in the romances I cherish reading ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true-life, she was really something !” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to school the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what extra hassle would 5,000 years of live bring, if we can’t get the record straight on a single everyday life-time?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

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