In 1988, French woman Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) was awarded the Guinness World Record for Oldest Human Being of All Time. She lived to be 122 years-old (and still holds the record to this day) but now, almost 22 years after her death, Russian researchers are claiming Calment was a fraud who actually only lived to be 99.
So where did those 23 years go?
Russian mathematician Nikolai Zak and gerontologist Valery Novoselov teamed up to look into Calment’s story after Zak became skeptical of the arguments used to validate her age. In a 26-page report entitled, “Jeanne Calment: The Secret to Longevity,” Zak lays out his 17-item argument for why he believes Jeanne was nowhere near as old as she claimed to be.
Zak hypothesizes that Jeanne Calment actually died in 1934 and that the woman known as the Oldest Human Being is actually Jeanne’s daughter Yvonne, who assumed her mother’s identity to avoid taxes after her death. Official records show that it was Yvonne who died in 1934 but Zak argues it would have been easy for Yvonne to do a little swap and claim she was her mother.
The report cites research in longevity and discrepancies in Jeanne’s interviews, biographies and pieces of photo identification as support for the hypothesis. Zak calls the scheme the “perfect fraud” and concludes his analysis with a call for “forensic analysis of the bodies and DNA of the family members” to “establish the truth.”
Interestingly, Zak also refers to some of the witty comments Calment made about her age over the years as ironic in light of the new theory. She was known for joking that “God forgot me” and “has missed my name” which Zak sees as a cheeky reference to her stolen identity.
Opponents of the theory
As the report gained traction in the news, people who knew Calment came to the woman’s defense, calling the theory nonsense.
Jean-Marie Robine, a gerontologist himself who had written extensively on Jeanne during her life, told French publication Le Parisien, “All this is completely wobbly and is not based on anything,” adding that people have questioned her age before and “I stand ready to continue the debate.”
Michel Vauzelle, the mayor of Arles, France where Calment lived her entire life, also stood by Jeanne, saying it was “completely impossible and ridiculous” to think she wasn’t who she said she was since she was monitored so closely as she aged.
The real bummer
The real bummer if the identity theft theory is true is that it means we probably have to be careful about how we treat our bodies after all. Jeanne’s love for alcohol, chocolate, candy and the occasional cigarette were well documented and encouraging for those of us who want to enjoy the less healthy things in life, but still live as long as possible. In fact, doctors report that Jeanne was never sick a day in her life, yet the woman refused to quit smoking and drinking port when they suggested it after her 117th birthday.
Not that 99 years isn’t a good long time on earth. Plus Jeanne recorded a rap album at the age of 121 (or 98?) and if you think you’ll ever be that cool, you’re wrong.