The Mystery of Jeanne Calment: The World’s Oldest Woman
| LAST UPDATE 10/17/2021
The longevity of Jeanne Calment's life has confused scientists for years. As secrets unfolded about her 122 years lived, twists, and turns took researchers down many rabbit holes. But was the answer right in front of them all along? Read on to find out.
A Far From Humble Beginning
Jeanne Calment was born on February 21, 1875, in Arles, a city in the south of France. She was the daughter of a well-known shipbuilder, which brought its share of luxuries. In her early 20's, Jeanne married her second cousin, Fernand Calment.
Fernand provided a lavish lifestyle for the couple and a home located above his family's department store. Jeanne never worked but kept herself busy with tennis matches and caring for her daughter, Yvonne, born in 1898. Calment wasn't one to offer up help in the store, but she expected people to take it when she did.
"I Haven't Forgotten the Pair of Slaps"
Years later, an Arles local recalled a visit to the Calment family store to pick up some fabric. She told the New York Times, "Madame Calment wanted to impose her taste on me." She continued, "Stubborn, I stuck with my choice, replying in a tone that didn't please her." Apparently, Jeanne did not like that response.
"I haven’t forgotten the pair of slaps," said the woman. That day, Jeanne ensured that the, at the time, young girl would likely never return for more fabric. Unfortunately, France's economy would soon plummet due to WWI, threatening the Calment's store and plush lifestyle.
The Dragon of Arles
Jeanne had a strong personality. In her later life, she was referred to as a "dragon" and "la comandante" in her nursing home. Calment was extremely active and disciplined, but she was not very well-liked. In fact, nursing home workers described her as a "tough cookie."
Calment was very specific about the details of her life. She demanded that her nursing home bed be made like a hotel every day. And, she adhered to a rigorous schedule that added work to everyone's plates. Locals were both impressed by and scared of her, but as the story unfolds, we learn this was for a good reason.
A Detailed Routine
Calment became a resident of the Maison de Lac nursing home in January of 1985 when she was 109 years old. She created a strict schedule for herself that began each day with a 6:45 am wakeup call. Jeanne would look out her window and pray, thanking God for being alive to begin her day.
Next on the schedule was chair gymnastics, followed by breakfast of coffee with milk and rusks. Jeanne then bathed herself and ate lunch. A dessert lover, she made sure to have something sweet at the end of every meal. A mid-day nap was followed by visits to neighbors, a quick dinner, and a 10:00 pm sharp bedtime.
A Savvy Businesswoman
Jeanne lived a disciplined lifestyle, but even more so with her finances. In 1965, a notary offered to buy Calment's apartment, thinking that he would hit the jackpot in no time. Under the French law, "en viager," buyers make monthly payments until the seller passes on. But, little did they know, this plan would soon crumble.
When documents were signed, Calment was about 90 years old, leading the notary to believe the apartment would soon be his. But, as it turned out, he was merely paying Jeanne's rent. The notary passed away in 1995, having never gotten the keys to the apartment. This was just one of many legendary stories Jeanne had up her sleeve.
Visiting With Van Gogh
Calment loved to tell stories about her younger days. How true they were, however, was part of her mysterious charm. One intriguing story involved a visit from the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. As the story goes, Van Gogh visited the Calment family store in 1888. But Jeanne remembered him as "Very ugly. Ugly like a louse."
Details of the encounter were hazy. At first, Jeanne said her father took care of the artist. But, this seemed odd to researchers, seeing as though her shipbuilder father worked outside of the store. Details in Calment's stories led listeners on a twisted path. Was this age-related forgetfulness or the truth finally seeping out?
Jeanne's Century Milestone
When Jeanne celebrated her 100th birthday, she was visited by the Mayor of Arles. This was a customary visit, as milestones like this didn't come around too often. The Mayor, however, was shocked when he saw the incredible mobility of the century-old woman. Her mobility and clear-mindedness showed no signs of dementia.
She rarely needed assistance getting around, and "Seemed 20 years younger," said the Mayor. Her amazing shape and condition sparked curiosity in researchers. They wondered if the well-put-together woman really was the age she claimed or if she was simply covering up something much bigger. Something didn't seem to add up.
Mistakes in Memory
The encounter with Van Gogh was one of many events that Calment could not clearly recall. When she was questioned about large events in history throughout her life, such as the 1884 cholera outbreak in Arles, she could not recall it. And, in later questioning, she confused her father and husband with one another.
Some of these mistakes could be chalked up to Jeanne's age. However, some forgotten details seemed selective. These mental mistakes or slip-ups in information led researchers to believe that Calment was hiding details to a much bigger story. Their mission? To separate fact from fiction before time ran out.
Tragedy Strikes The Calment's
The coming years brought tragedy to the Calment family. In the 1930s, Yvonne contracted tuberculosis. At the time, the disease came hand in hand with negative social stigmas. It was rumored that she was sent to a sanatorium outside of Arles. As Yvonne's health declined, another problem came to light: insurance taxes.
Jeanne was struggling from the spike in taxes following the deaths of her father and mother-in-law. There was no doubt, the family and France's economy were struggling. Inheritance taxes rose from 5% to about 25%, causing widespread financial devastation. But, if Yvonne passed away, the family could maneuver around taxes.
Bad News Piles up
Unfortunately, 1934 was the beginning of a string of losses that would soon leave Jeanne very lonely. After a tiring battle with tuberculosis, Yvonne died, likely from disease complications. Despite Calment's health records showing that she too had the disease, she oddly remained in perfect health. The family had to reset.
Jeanne and Fernand took in Yvonne's son and raised him as their own. But, tragedy struck the Calment's again when Fernand passed away due to a curious cause. As it turned out, he was poisoned with tainted cherries. Where did the dangerous fruit come from? Who would want to hurt Fernand? The answers proved to be hard to find.
Jeanne Was On Her Own
Following her husband's death, Jeanne's son-in-law, Joseph, moved into her apartment. This seemed odd to some, but it was written off as a simple caretaking relationship at her age. However, yet another death struck Calment's heart when Joseph suddenly passed away in 1963.
Believe it or not, that was not the last tragedy to strike that year. Within a few months of Joseph's death, Yvonne's son passed away. Now, Jeanne was truly alone. She had outlived her daughter, husband, son-in-law, and grandson. What was Jeanne to do next? It was at this time that more secrets from her past began to emerge.
Several Strange Burials
As those outside of Arles learned about the tragic year that Jeanne experienced, interesting details about Yvonne's burial came to light. The Calment's had an Arles-based family grave where many generations had been buried. However, Yvonne's name was strangely missing from the headstone.
Locals argued that the missing name was simply due to the gravestone being revamped during the 1960s. But, researchers were not convinced. Later, it was discovered that Yvonne's death wasn't the only strange happening. When Jeanne passed away, she was buried with "Violent haste" that many felt was an attempt to hide something.
A Curious Paper Trail
Researchers' ears perked up when the 1931 census records were released. Not only was Yvonne's name missing from the family gravestone, but the census fell curiously absent of it as well. Some chalked it up to a simple technical error amidst the transition from handwritten to typed records. But, some have other theories.
Many believe that Yvonne's name was missing from the census because she took her Mother's identity. Her death certificate listed January 19, 1934, as her date of passing. However, the death certificate signing witness was not a coroner, but a stranger from several villages over. So, what did that mean about Jeanne's death?
Suspicion from Russia
Calment's death in 1997 reignited interest in her longevity. Despite partaking in many interviews and allowing countless doctor's examinations, people still weren't convinced. So, a team of Russian researchers, including Nikolay Zak, geriatrician Valery Novoselov, and genealogist Yuri Deigin gathered and got to work.
They began gathering information that could potentially squash the rumors surrounding Jeanne's recorded age of death. After countless hours of work, the researchers claimed that it was statistically unlikely that Calment could have reached that age. Then, they came up with a theory that sent the Arles community into a frenzy.
A Shocking Hypothesis
Researchers Zak, Novoselov, and Deigin came to a controversial conclusion. They hypothesized that it was actually Jeanne Calment who passed away in 1934, not her daughter, Yvonne! Zak then declared that Yvonne must have been impersonating her Mother for over 60 years.
Their theory sent a ripple of confusion through the city of Arles. Community members were torn between believing the woman they thought they knew or believing the researchers. Considering that the researchers dove deeper into Jeanne's life than anyone had ever gone before, people were understandably uneasy.
A Picture Worth A Thousand Lies
Genealogist Yuri Deigin was determined to prove that Jeanne was much younger than 122 when she died. He began sorting through records and old photographs with a fine-tooth comb. He compared old records to modern ones and looked for evidence of proof for the researcher's theory.
After some time, Deigin noticed something. Comparing several photos, he realized that the facial and eye structure, as well as nose shape, varied. Compared to images of Jeanne as an older woman, the photos simply did not add up. This intrigued the determined researcher and led him to dive deeper.
Suspicion Continues to Grow
Many people were impressed by Jeanne's active lifestyle, but it made several doctors skeptical. Geriatrician Valery Novoselov dedicated countless hours studying photographs and videos of Calment. In an interview, he shared his beliefs that there was much more to the story regarding her recorded age than people were aware of.
Novoselov believed that Jeanne's skin and muscular system were in much better shape than typically seen in older adults. Calment's ability to play tennis and move about without assistance left him confused. After agreeing to share his findings with other skeptics, this launched a full-blown investigation.
Yuri Deigin found a copy of an official identification card from the 1930s when Jeanne was supposedly in her 50s. Upon closer inspection, Calment appeared to be much younger. But, this wasn't the only discrepancy. Her eye color was listed as dark-colored, but this contrasted with the green eyes she had at the time of her death.
Jeanne's height was also curious to Deigin. The I.D. card listed her height as 152 centimeters, but it was 150 centimeters at her death. This is typically seen in people of old age. However, researcher Nicolay Zak noticed yet another difference in records: The way she wrote the letter "J" in her signatures.
Was Anyone Else Involved?
If Yvonne Calment was impersonating her Mother until her death, as some skeptics believe, how could that secret have been kept in such a close-knit community? The twist-of-events answer can be found in the book Insurance and Its Secrets, written by Jean-Pierre Daniel.
Daniel reported that the insurer paying Calment's life annuities was actually aware that Yvonne was, in fact, collecting payments, not Jeanne. Meaning that he was aware Yvonne had assumed the identity of her Mother. This meant that insurers were aware the family was committing insurance fraud but decided to keep it under wraps!
Scientists Sunk Their Teeth In
Jeanne and her confusing yet inspiring life hold the key to unlocking secrets behind health and aging in the medical world. Even at the age of 100, her ability to go hunting for sport has left scientists in awe. They were also dumbstruck that Calment had not fallen victim to age-related diseases like diabetes or Alzheimer's.
Calment was a lifelong smoker until the age of 117. She also enjoyed chocolate for dessert and a nightly glass of Port wine. This led scientists to wonder if Jeanne's DNA held explanations behind the deflection of these diseases. Intrigued, researchers sunk their teeth deeper into the mysterious science of aging.
Calment Gained International Attention
As news of Calment's death made international headlines in 1997, it sparked worldwide debate over the facts related to her case. Russian research teams publicly disagreed with their French counterparts over details. And, as scientists pushed, an investigation into Jeanne's DNA and blood sample gained mass attention.
From the field of anti-aging, Dr. Aubrey De Grey believed Jeanne's blood sample should be tested in order to learn more about aging processes. Dr. De Grey joined Deigin for a conference where they presented supporting evidence that Yvonne had become Jeanne.
The Case Became Personal
Residents of Arles were a close-knit community. Taking the accusations about Calment as a personal attack, they felt they had to protect Jeanne's legacy. So, a Facebook group made up of over 1,500 people, including Nikolay Zak, was launched. The group was called The Counter-Investigation of the Jeanne Calment Investigation.
Members shared photos and stories that Zak believed could be evidence in the case. It could even confirm that Jeanne did, in fact, live to be 122. A detail shared was that Jeanne was not well-liked. This meant that community members would have been unlikely to mask a hoax if there was one. But, the case soon went up in smoke.
Jeanne's Story Goes up in Flames
Believe it or not, even more mysterious twists and turns came next. Thanks to newer research, it emerged that before entering the Maison de Lac nursing home in 1985, Calment had a strange request. Jeanne called on her heiress, Madame Bigonnet, to burn all of her personal photographs and documents.
The request was given just after the Arles archives department requested Jeanne's personal artifacts. Many researchers found this to be an extraordinary request but stood by to watch events pan out. Nikolay Zak hypothesized the action was "A result of cold calculation and acute necessity instead of an emotional act."
Suspicious Circumstances Grow
In addition to the mix-up with Van Gogh, Jeanne also couldn't keep track of Marthe Fousson, the family's maid. In an interview, Calment recalled being walked to school by Fousson, yet things didn't align when this was looked into. It was found that Marthe was actually 10 years younger than Jeanne, making the story impossible.
It was later found that Yvonne's husband never remarried. Widowed at 42, there was an opportunity for this, yet Joseph moved in with his Mother-in-law instead. Many researchers argue that the pair got along so well because it was really Yvonne, his wife, pretending to be Jeanne. But this isn't the whole story.
Was Yvonne Coached?
Jeanne continued to shock doctors with her ability to recall specific life events, despite her advanced age. When asked, she could recall the names of her dressmaker, piano teacher, and even the creators of her wedding cutlery. But, despite all of the information she was able to share, researcher Nickolay Zak was not convinced.
He found that French investigators released information that they occasionally "re-injected" details into their dialogue with Jeanne. The investigators said this tactic was used in hopes of activating "dormant memories." But, Zak believes that Yvonne, pretending to be her deceased Mom, was coached to memorize specific details.
Russian Researchers Push Forward
Despite the amount of backlash from Arles locals and French government officials, the Russian researchers continued their fight. According to Zak, they believed that the entire situation was a massive hoax and medical cover-up. Before long, the frustration of this case spread throughout France and the rest of the world.
In France, a growing desire-turned-demand to test Jeanne's blood sample, or even exhume her body, spread. So, what was holding them back? Calment donated blood to a group of French researchers in the 1990s, so those interested had what they needed. But, they had to fight for the ability to put it to the test.
Testing Jeanne's Genes
The blood sample is believed to be in storage at Foundation Daussant, where Jeanne had previously donated. However, the act of testing the sample has caused many scientists to raise ethical questions. While some feel it is necessary to prove Calment's real age and identity, others do not.
Those who are against the testing believe that Jeanne consented to donate her blood only for "certain purposes." This could mean that testing might run the risk of the DNA ending up in the wrong hands. This caused the foundation's director, Jean-François Deleuze, to refuse the release of the sample.
French Scientists Double Down
In her elderly age, Jeanne was seemingly avoiding death. This caused a team of French researchers to follow her closely for years. She was monitored by her personal doctor, Victor Lèbre, demographer Jean-Marie Robine, and gerontologist Michel Allard. In fact, Robine took this case and its allegations personally.
Robine exclaimed that the attacks on his team's careful research were ridiculous. So, he released his own publication as a public rebuttal. In it, he states something we have heard before; that Jeanne was not a well-liked woman. To him, this meant that they would be unlikely to help Calment in a supposed cover-up.
Is There an End in Sight?
To this day, Russian and French researchers continue to disagree on when Jeanne passed away. Whether it was at the age of 99 or 122, there is no denying that Calment lived a life full of exciting revelations. She made dessert and a glass of wine part of her daily routine, and that's not all.
Calment witnessed technology change the world and lived through two World Wars. After, she watched the world build back up around her. To this day, Arles locals remain in good spirits, hopeful that there is more to be discovered. In fact, Cécile Pellegrini told The Guardian, "If it's actually true, she was really something!"
The Search For the Truth Continues
Thanks to advancements in technology and media outlets throughout the years, Jeanne's story continues to intrigue people far and wide. Researchers are still hard at work fighting for the ability to find answers in Calment's DNA and what is left of her personal memorabilia.
The world has become infatuated with how Jeanne Calment escaped the grip of death for so long. The confusing yet exciting details about her life continue to rack the brains of researchers around the globe. And, based on what has been uncovered so far, they don't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.