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 encumber the secret to eternal life

If time realise suckers of us all, you couldn’t accuse Andre-Francois Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a advocate 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 structure of property auction 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 people 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 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 lived in the areas 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 preposterous, Calment maintained courtroom 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 journalists and local noticeables would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 years to be famous. I mean to stimulate the most of it ,” she was reported to have said. One defendant bit was recounting how, as a adolescent, she had gratified Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and locals announced him” the dingo “.

The pensioner sounded consecrated 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 set 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 supported 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 attain the most of it .’ Photograph: Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Some, though, believe it’s not just period that constitutes fools of us all. Last time, a Russian mathematician called Nikolay Zak made an astonishing claim: “that its not” Jeanne Calment who perished in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne. Sceptical about the degree to which Calment had beaten previous record-holders( the very near supported claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her profile and uncovered a legion of inconsistencies. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking website, then are caught up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s article claimed that Jeanne Calment are really 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 assume responsibility for her identity- they appeared same- and she to be maintained the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper disappeared 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 paper in 10 years.

Zak redoubled down in response. He publicized an expanded article in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It gathered a dossier of 17 pieces of biographical exhibit supporting the ” switch ” speculation, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old-fashioned Jeanne( a change in eye colouring from “dark” to green) and discrepancies in the verbal testimonies she passed 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 “thered be” no public observance of Jeanne’s 100 th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak acknowledged, there was no smoking gun; but together these slice of circumstantial indicate did emit a carnival sum of inhale. Crucially, he intimated a conceivable reason: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s neighbourhood in order to avoid punishing inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period guided as high-pitched as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological curves, becoming increasingly heated. Many dismissed Zak’s swap ideology as Russian-sponsored” counterfeit information”, as the newspaper Le Parisien employed it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak carried little doubt the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian policy place manager 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 play a leading role in the gerontology discipline?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of neighbourhood pride. They instantly rallied behind Calment and structured a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to dismantle Zak’s says. Their members included Calment’s distant relatives, and others who had known her; although some said she had been insolent and waspish, they didn’t want her reputation sullied. They had easy access to the city’s repositories, while Zak had never been to Arles: what could he know? He filmed back, on their open counter-investigation forum: perhaps the “Arlesiens” have only just blinded by their faithfulness.” 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 determined 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 median lifespans still rising , no one has come within touching distance of Jeanne Calment. In the supercentenarian league- 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 projection model for human mortality, 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 approximately 50%. Knowing this, Calment’s record watches 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 crypt. When I visit in the last days of August, summer has checked out early; the sky is overcast, the first autumn leaves are on the soil. On the mottled, dark-grey marble of Calment’s clas mausoleum stands a cup of forgery chrysanthemums and a yellowing succulent. Curiously, Joseph Billot, Jeanne’s son-in-law and Yvonne’s husband, and her grandson Frederic Billot are distinguished, but her daughter is not. Yet the cemetery trustee, in a shack a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

Colette
Tintype portraits of Calment’s supporters, who all feud the forgery theory, from left. Colette Barbe, Brigitte Jajcaj and Cecile Pellegrin. Photograph: Jonathan Pierredon/ The Guardian

In a inn plot next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I converge three members of the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems peculiar that Jeanne did not made her own daughter’s reputation 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 status of women say. The tomb wasn’t renovated until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a car gate-crash ); by then, Yvonne had been dead for 30 times, and Jeanne exclusively had recent developments extinctions engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of investigators: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, sardonic talker whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s firstly Asian eatery; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a grow shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a series around her neck; Barbe is a strong-minded bourgeoisie, vibrantly attired and covered 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 insignium of Arles ,” says Jajcaj.” She accommodated herself perfectly upright at 102, which was beautiful .”

Soon after Zak’s paper was published, the group began to scour local repositories for proof that undermined his theory. Distant members of the Calment and Billot categories been set up their photo books and personal newspapers. 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 brand-new acquires. He was collegiate on the surface, does recognize that he and the counter-investigation had a shared purpose: the truth. But over age they felt his attitude- requiring people chase after evidence on his behalf, unfailingly employing it to back up his own theory- begin to rankle.” Sometimes I gives the impression that he thinks he understands our way of life and history better than us ,” says Barbe.

But digging into the past began to pay dividends. One brand-new photograph donated by a family member pictured Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with mailing-cards and Google Maps uncovered it to become 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 condition: her husband, Joseph, an infantry 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 switching did take place, maintaining this story in plain sight would have compelled an extraordinary and queasy degree of hypocrisy. Yvonne would have had to share a house with Jeanne’s widower, Fernand, her own parent, 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 improbable this was. A plot would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit population of 20, 000, and unlikely generated Mme Calment’s reputation as a “dragon”, says Pellegrini.” If people had known about the scam, 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 feeling of a financial motivating. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% death tax, but the group’s study led them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a frequency the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s great assets.

But Zak refused to budge. Exclusively a DNA test, either from Trinquetaille cemetery or a sample of Calment’s blood, rumoured to be stored in a Paris research institute, would end such matters, he argued. But the status of women from the counter-investigation group believe he has gone too far down the rabbit loophole to consider any theory but his own.” Even if[ a DNA test] proves it was Jeanne, he’ll never countenanced 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 the risk of death in a payed year is absolute- with an effective ceiling to human life somewhere between 119 and 129. Others believe there is no such ceiling, thanks to a phenomenon known as” fatality deceleration “: the plateauing of the death rate after 105. But there are doubts about this plateau, very, due to the frequent misreporting of supercentenarians( primarily due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few cases mistakes can skew our understanding of human limits( 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 meet him at his house in the hamlet of Pignan, precisely west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine board 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 territory organisation Inserm( L’Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale ),” never had validating her age as a mandate ,” he clarifies.” It was to validate the quality of the administrative documents that attested to her age. And from what we had at our dumping, there was 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 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 miles away in the hamlet of Paradou. He is suggested that she would masquerade as her father, 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 assumption, 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 documentations. They did, however, deport a series of roughly 40 interviews with Calment at the Maison du Lac, asking for details of her life that merely she would know. She made some slips, unsurprisingly for her age, often desegregating up her father and spouse.( Zak rushed on such mistakes in excerpts of the records later be made available in a journal .) But many other details, such as the names of girls and teaches, mainly tallied with the information is available in censuses and academy 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 determine the debate. Jeanne’s husband Fernand was her distant cousin, so Yvonne had more ancestors common to both sides of their own families than her mom- something that would be visible in her DNA. Robine can scarcely hold back his indignation at those recommendations of DNA testing.” What are we going to do- just side it over to the Russians? To an international committee? To do what? These beings are caught up in supernatural gues- 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 are quite right ,” he says. There is a flash of intellectual pride behind his poker-face. Boyish in a off-color polo shirt with tousled mane, a slight smile occasionally interrupts his equanimity.” Some beings 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 years. But he became caught up in the Calment case after acquiring contact on Facebook with Valery Novoselov, head of gerontology at the Moscow Society of Naturalist( MOIP ), who had longstanding surmises about her. Novoselov’s speciman had been based largely on photographic analysis; he promoted Zak, who spoke some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival prove. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” “hes having” procured.” He always had some apology about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that constituted me carry on .”( Robine feuds that he was evasive, “says hes” fitted 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, accepts the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate is trying to sow doubt about western technical procedures, is tantamount to” academic scam “. He points to what he sees as Zak’s obstinate refusal to consider any scenario other than the button theory.” Character of the scientific testing technique is that we need to be open to multiple possibilities, 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 spurns accusations of fraud.

As well as the lack of academic rigour in the original newspaper, 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 operating photographsof a young Yvonne Calment to emphasise similarities with her mom. Young alleges that such sleights of hand indicate that Zak, or people are concerned with him, had an ulterior agenda.

Still, the substitution camp had arguments that couldn’t readily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd application, when Arles’s archives asked for them, that her personal papers be burned; and a 2006 note in a French manufacture newspaper of a dinner at which a guest intimated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity permutation, but no act had been taken because she was already too far-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 calling for the formal retraction of Zak’s paper.

Zak upped the bet. In an open character sent to prominent gerontologists, longevity researchers and columnists- 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 indicated,” while the potential benefits for discipline are huge .” Many people remembered Zak had gone too far. One member of the board of Rejuvenation Research, which had written his revised newspaper, renounced, saying it had” disgraced the field of gerontology in both Russia and internationally “.

Back in Arles, the counter-investigation group were also wondering about the singular the actions of their “Russian friend”. He had been helpful at first, but in the depths of long explain weaves he could often be provocative, 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 occasions he’s horrid, and we’re forced to block him for a few cases daytimes .” 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 subsidize 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 aimed is dismissed by Novoselov, the gerontologist who assignment Zak with analyse her.” Look , nobody in Russia attends 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 impulses, and likens the French attachment to Calment to the national cult of Joan of Arc.” Their ability to believe in such fairytales is one of the fundamental rights intellects behind the process of preparing 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 aim was to get Calment struck off the supercentenarians register. 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 records, then maybe we would be convinced .”

Aubrey
Aubrey De Grey, in California. He recollects humans live their lives to 5,000, and craves 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 such issues we invoked “. His reply, says Novoselov, was ” a parade of aggressivenes by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his duty as a plot steered from on high by” someone important “. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has peril 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 gazette devoted to life-extension research edited by Aubrey de Grey, the controversial 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 is of interest to those of us studying the biology of ageing ,” he tells me.

Speaking on the phone from London, where he is on a layover between Berlin and his home in California, De Grey is evasive about whether his programme 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 crave his own investigate organization, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not inevitably, he says,” but I would definitely know the right kind of researchers to recommend “.

That analysis seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The Fondation Jean Dausset, a private genetic investigate centre in Paris, refuses even to confirm that it is keeping Jeanne Calment’s blood; simply that it has a collection of biosamples it alone can use for research under anonymised conditions. But Francois Schachter, the scientist who in the 1990 s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic questionnaire 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 dissenters like De Grey was proscribe 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 expended $1.5 bn in an entire schism, Calico, devoted to” solving death “. 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 expending the $13 m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing rehabilitations that will save” several million” lives. But it must start to pay its mode; wouldn’t procuring the DNA of the oldest female 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 information 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 are supportive of the behavior Zak and De Grey have apparently attempted to force the foundation’s mitt. One cause of promoting the switch theory, they point out, is that they have alienated family members whose own DNA might be crucial in understanding Calment’s.

Earlier this month, a Russian news organization has declared 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; thrown her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50 s. But the floor 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 guess 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 are saying that Jeanne Calment does not illustration 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 story to be true, like in the tales I adore speaking ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually genuine, she was really something !” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to school the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what additional disturb would 5,000 years of actuality making, if we can’t get the record straight-out on a single everyday life-time?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

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