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

If time does morons 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 suite from one of his patrons” en viager “: a formation of property sale 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 merely 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 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 thrust her further into the realm of the preposterous, Calment regarded 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 columnists and neighbourhood remarkables would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 times to be famed. I mean to attain the most of it ,” she was reported to have said. One defendant bit was narrating how, as a boy, she had convened Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and neighbourhoods called him” the dingo “.

The pensioner seemed consecrated with the stamina 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 columnists ,” 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 set it, had only so much road to run. By 1996, she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, predominantly blind and deaf, she ultimately succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest validated human lifespan in history.

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

Some, though, believe it’s not just duration that attains fools of us all. Last-place year, a Russian mathematician announced 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 outperformed previous record-holders( the nearest corroborated claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her profile and unveiled a emcee of divergences. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking area, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s newspaper 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 moment, Zak alleged, her daughter had assumed her identity- they gazed same- and she to be maintained the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper extended 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 doubled down with a view to responding. He wrote an expanded newspaper in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It gathered a dossier of 17 patches of biographical testify is in favour of ” switch ” thought, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old Jeanne( a change in eye emblazon from “dark” to dark-green) and divergences in the verbal testimonies she leaved 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 too claimed there had been no public fete 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 portions of circumstantial sign did exhale a bazaar amount of fume. Crucially, he advocated a probable inducement: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s situate 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 circles, becoming increasingly heated. Numerous dismissed Zak’s swap belief as Russian-sponsored” forgery information”, as the newspaper Le Parisien put it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak carried doubts about the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian guarantee office 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 play a leading role in the gerontology discipline?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of neighbourhood dignity. They speedily 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 haughty and waspish, they didn’t want her reputation sullied. They had easy access to the city’s archives, while Zak had never been to Arles: what could he know? He killed back, on their open counter-investigation forum: perhaps the “Arlesiens” were 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 established 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 example 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 approximately 50%. Knowing this, Calment’s record searches 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 fleck, apart from the small book-shaped plinth impressed ” La doyenne de l’humanite “ on her mausoleum. 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 sand. On the mottled, dark-grey marble of Calment’s household mausoleum stands a utensil 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 labelled, but her daughter is not. Yet the cemetery keeper, in a shanty a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

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

In a inn garden next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I encounter three a number of members of the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems curious that Jeanne did not put 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 tomb wasn’t refurbished until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a auto crash ); by then, Yvonne had fucking dead for 30 times, and Jeanne merely had recent developments demises engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of sleuths: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, sarcastic loudspeaker whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s firstly Asian restaurant; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a heighten shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a chain around her cervix; 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 badge of Arles ,” says Jajcaj.” She contained 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 houses opened up their photo albums and personal papers. In the spirit of open debate, Zak was also accepted on to the forum, where he kept up a extending commentary on the brand-new detects. He was collegiate on the surface, does recognize that he and the counter-investigation had a shared objective: the truth. But over period they felt his attitude- expecting people chase after evidence on his behalf, unfailingly employing it to back up his working 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 new photo donated by a family member showed Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with postcards and Google Maps discovered 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 predicament: 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 switch did take place, maintaining this story in plain sight would have required an extraordinary and queasy level of misrepresentation. 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 preposterous this was. A plot would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit person of 20, 000, and unlikely afforded Mme Calment’s reputation as a “dragon”, says Pellegrini.” If beings had known about the impostor, 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 intuition of a fiscal incentive. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% inheritance tax, but the group’s investigate led them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a rate the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s significant 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 settle the matter, he bickered. But the status of women from the counter-investigation group believe he has gone too far down the rabbit loophole to consider any speculation 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 is happening with charges of fatality in extreme old age. Some investigates believe they continue to rise with the Gompertz curve, until the risk of death in a afforded 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( chiefly due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few 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” gold standard” by Jean-Marie Robine, the man who helped carry it out. I convene him at his house in the village of Pignan, simply west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine board suddenlies 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 regime organisation Inserm( L’Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale ),” never had validating her age as its core 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” questionable .” 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 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 mother, 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 belief, categorically 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, behaviour a series of practically 40 interrogations with Calment at the Maison du Lac, asking for details of her life that only she only knew. She made some slips, unsurprisingly for her age, often mixing up her parent and husband.( Zak jump-start on such mistakes in excerpts of the transcripts later be made available in a work .) But many other details, such as the names of girls and teachers, predominantly 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 builds his argument. I mention the idea that a DNA test on Calment’s blood could adjudicate 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- exactly hand it over to the Russians? To an international committee? To do what? These beings get caught in mystical reasoning- that the secret of longevity is in her genes .”

***

By August 2019, l’affaire Calment had settled into a stalemate. 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 dignity behind his poker-face. Boyish in a off-color sport shirt with tousled whisker, a slight smile rarely breaks his aplomb.” 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 perished 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, service animals with an improbably long lifespan of about 30 years. But he became caught up in the Calment case after obligating contact on Facebook with Valery Novoselov, head of gerontology at the Moscow Society of Naturalists( MOIP ), who had longstanding mistrusts about her. Novoselov’s instance had been based largely on photographic analysis; he promoted Zak, who have spoken some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival indicate. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” he had learnt.” He ever had some apology about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that constructed me carry on .”( Robine disputes that he was evasive, “says hes” matched extensively with Zak in October 2018.)

Meanwhile, others were beginning to have doubts about Zak and Novoselov. Robert Young, who supports supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, speculates 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 substitution hypothesi.” Proportion 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 spurns accusations of fraud.

As well as the absence 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 declared operating photographsof a young Yvonne Calment to emphasise similarities with her mom. Young alleges that such sleights of hand indicate that Zak, or parties working with him, had an ulterior agenda.

Still, the switching camp had arguments that couldn’t easily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd asking, when Arles’s archives asked for them, that her personal articles be burned; and a 2006 history in a French manufacture newspaper of a dinner at which a guest intimated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity swap, but no act had been taken because she was already too famous. 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 letter sent to prominent gerontologists, longevity researchers and correspondents- with Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and the White House CCed- he called again for the tests of Calment’s DNA.” I don’t think such a study would be harmful to anybody ,” he quarrelled,” while the potential benefits for discipline are huge .” Many parties felt Zak had gone too far. One is part of the board of Rejuvenation Research, which had written his revised paper, 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 magnitudes of long mention weaves he could often be provoking, even goading. One member succeeded in getting Zak temporarily blocked from 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 seasons he’s repulsive, and we’re forced to block him for a few daylights .” 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 substantiate from others .) But if Zak is a frontman, who might he be fronting for?

***

The theory that the Calment attack has been politically targeted is dismissed by Novoselov, the gerontologist who tasked Zak with investigating her.” Look , nobody in Russia attends at all about this story ,” he says.” They couldn’t care less. There ought to have two sections in the media, and that’s it .” Novoselov says he is simply following his scientific impulses, and equates 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 concludes behind the process of preparing 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 blow, 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 individual patients ?” he counters.” If they showed us her medical records, then maybe we would be convinced .”

Aubrey
Aubrey De Grey, in California. He speculates humans live their lives to 5,000, and wants 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 conjured “. His reply, says Novoselov, was ” a expose of invasion by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his job as a scheme led from on high by” someone important “. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has menaced 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 newspaper did have a second sponsor. The peer-reviewed version being issued in Rejuvenation Research, the publication 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 are of concern to those of us studying the biology of ageing ,” he tells me.

Speaking on the telephone from London, where he is on a stopover between Berlin and his home in California, De Grey is evasive of determining whether his strategy is to force the liberation 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 postpone ageing- then that’s actually quite important .” Would he require his own study footing, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not necessarily, he says,” but I would 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; merely that it has a collection of biosamples it alone can use for research under anonymised states. 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 outlaw 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 asset. In 2013, Google invested $1.5 bn in an entire divide, Calico, are dedicated to” solving death “. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Sens.

But Sens, are consistent with its annual reports, has been running at heavy losings. 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 method; wouldn’t fastening the DNA of the oldest lady 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 place 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 room Zak and De Grey have seemingly attempted to force the foundation’s side. One cause of promoting the switch theory, they point out, is that they have alienated family members whose own DNA might be crucial to a better understanding of Calment’s.

Earlier this month, a Russian news organisation announced 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; generated her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50 s. But the narrative 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 ponder 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 representation high on his priorities, he plans to devote another issue 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 ruler fraudster.” I would really like the switching narration is correct, like in the tales I love 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 misfortune would 5,000 years of universe wreaking, if we can’t get the record directly on a single everyday life-time?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

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