She Lived 122 Years but Some Say She Was Younger

9 months ago

It’s 1875. There are 38 states in the US. Queen Victoria rules the UK. The Eiffel Tower won’t be built for another 12 years. The Empire State Building — not for another 50!

The average life expectancy for a 19th-century female is about 45 years. One woman, born this year, will nearly triple that. Her name is Jeanne Louise Calment...

She was born on February 21st, in Arles, France, right at the beginning of the global industrial boom. She was a year old when the telephone was invented. The phonograph followed 2 years later. Then the automobile, radio, TV, the computer, and the Internet over the decades.

By the time Microsoft was founded, Calment was already 100. When the first smartphone was invented, she was 117. A woman alive in the ’90s — perhaps within your lifetime — could remember when candles were used to lighthouses. She knew a world without airplanes and spaceships!

The Wright Brothers took flight when Calment was already a grown woman at 28. When the first person went into space, she was 86 years old. Madame Calment holds the world record for the longest-lived person ever — She survived 122 years and 164 days. Or did she?

At the age of 21, Jeanne got married to Fernand. At that time, she would wear long fancy dresses with her hair in elegant updos. Victorian women didn’t wear pants when Jeanne was a young adult. In 1898, Jeanne gave birth to her only child, Yvonne. By the time her daughter was in her 30s, she and her mother would start wearing tailored suits, a trend started by Coco Chanel in the 1920s.

Jeanne survived a lot at the beginning of the 20th century. But the worst came in 1934. Her daughter Yvonne passed away at 36. In 1942, Jeanne lost her husband Fernand. By 1963, the 88-year-old was left all alone. She’d outlived all her heirs.

With no one to hand the family’s huge apartment down to, she made a deal with her notary, Monsieur Raffray, in 1969. Jeanne agreed that Raffray would pay her 2,500 Francs a month (around the same equivalent in US dollars today) for the rest of her life. Once she was gone, he’d get the apartment. Sounds like a good deal to make with a 94-year-old!

But she ended up outliving him too! His widow continued the payments until Jeanne’s passing in 1997. In total, because Madame Calment had lived so incredibly long, the Raffrays ended up paying 11 times more than expected. It’s considered one of the worst investments ever made!

Many people noted that Jeanne was always full of energy. She looked and acted 20 or even 30 years younger than her age. A theory began that Jeanne was actually her daughter Yvonne! And that’s when all the mystery began...

A group of scientists decided to check if Jeanne’s extreme longevity was real. For them, her case was too extreme and unique not to be scrutinized! Calment claimed it was her healthy diet and physical activity (she swam, played tennis, and even cycled up to her 100th year!). She also put it down to her carefree, stress-free lifestyle — she never had to work a day in her long life.

Those skeptics think that in the photos where she’s 110 years old, she’s actually no more than 90. An expert in aging closely examined images of the supercentenarian. They noted no signs of age-related frailty, which is typical for people living to 100, let alone 2 decades longer than that! One mathematician even studied her genealogy and made an equation showing how slim the chances were of anyone in the family living that long.

Researching the course of Jeanne’s incredibly long life, the scientists were doubtful as to why she never mentioned several significant events that she supposedly lived through. A major one was the massive cholera outbreak of 1884 — she would’ve been 9, plenty old to remember something like that. Yvonne hadn’t even been born yet.

There were questions about her documents too. Her ID card from the 1930s stated that her hair and eyes were extremely dark, pretty much black. But at the end of her life, her eyes were gray, and she’d had chestnut hair before it went totally white.

True, in about 10-15% of people, the eyes can get lighter with age since pigments in the iris degrade. But for most people, the eyes darken over the years because melanin builds up in the iris.

But there was also a problem with her height. Jeanne was 4’11" — Yvonne was a bit taller, about 5’. At 114 years of age, Jeanne was still 4’11". Her height hadn’t changed an inch! Extremely odd, since people shrink as they get older because the cartilage between the joints thins out.

For many years, Jeanne somehow managed to remain unnoticed. She moved to a nursing home in 1985 when she was 110. No newspapers in Arles had mentioned any centenarians celebrating their 100th birthday 10 years prior.

Madame Calment didn’t become that famous until 1988. There was a celebration of 100 years since Vincent van Gogh stayed in Arles. Jeanne told reporters that she’d met the famous artist when he was in town! She was 13 at the time.

She then appeared in a documentary called “Vincent and Me” in 1990. Just 5 years later — now aged 120 — Calment got the world record for the oldest person to ever live.

But for some reason, she’d get her husband and father mixed up in her stories. She first mentioned that their family store belonged to her father, but it actually belonged to Fernand — Jeanne’s husband. Jeanne’s father, Nicolas Calment, was a shipbuilder, he never ran any store. It would make sense for Yvonne to get her story wrong — it was her father who owned the store!

One more thing that just didn’t fit: Jeanne mentioned several times that a woman named Marthe would take her to school. According to the records, Marthe did work for the Calments, but she was 10 years younger than Jeanne. There’s no way she would take little Jeanne to school. She could, however, easily accompany young Yvonne.

But the skeptical scientists didn’t stop there. Looking at the only known photo where the two women are together, they look quite different. But when the researchers compared photos of young Yvonne and old Jeanne, they found a notable similarity in their facial bones, noses, and other features that made it seem like they were one and the same person.

Another curious fact is that Yvonne had a fibroma on the tip of her nose. Surprisingly, in some photos, Jeanne had the same growth. Could Yvonne really have inherited a random growth of mutating cells in the very same place her mother had one? It does seem strangely coincidental.

With all this, the skeptics concluded that it was actually Yvonne, not Jeanne, who lived until 1997. Their theory was that Jeanne is the one who passed away back in 1934 at the age of 59. The family, they say, then decided that the daughter would impersonate her mother. The alleged reason: to evade high inheritance taxes.

Luckily, her hometown Arles has one of the richest and best-preserved archives in the world. It had plenty of interesting documents, including Jeanne’s original birth and marriage certificates. But, oddly enough, photo evidence is scarce. A cousin of Jeanne’s grandson claims to have burnt all the remaining family portraits back in 1994 on Jeanne’s order. This begs the question: why would she have wanted that?

Despite all the skepticism, Jeanne has still held onto her record. And perhaps she’s not such an outlier, after all. The oldest living man — Jiroemon Kimura from Japan — made it to 116! In fact, Japan leads the world in centenarian populations. They have more than 70,000 people at or over the age of 100!

Whether elderly Jeanne was really her daughter or not — we may never know. But perhaps it’s better to focus on what today’s super long-lived people are doing right!

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