The improbable life of Jeanne Calment
Being more of a r-strategy person myself, one that works hard and reproduces a lot (live fast and die young, if you like), I have never been very interested in longevity research. For that reason it took me until last week before I heard of the doubts around Jeanne Calment, officially the world’s oldest person ever, who died in 1997, aged 122.
The official biography of Jeanne Calment is nothing spectacular. She was born in the city of Arles, in southern France, and she lived her entire life there. She was from a solid middle-class background. She married and had one daughter. Her wider family included some nonagenarians but nothing out of the ordinary. It therefore came as something of a surprise when Madame Calment just continued living and living and living.
That is, unless there was something fishy with her entire life. Because there is controversy surrounding Jeanne Calment. This blogpost from Pathfindings told me the story of gerontologist Valery Novoselov and mathematician Nikolay Zak who have invested a lot of time and effort into debunking the story of Jeanne Calment.
Their theory is that the person calling herself Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997, was in fact Jeanne’s daughter Yvonne, who officially died of tuberculosis in 1934, at the age of 36. According to Novoselov’s and Zak’s theory it was in fact Jeanne who died of tuberculosis in 1934 and her daughter Yvonne started impersonating her in order to avoid the inheritance tax (which was punitive in France in the 1930s).
At first blush, the Novoselov/Zak theory looks laughable. The Calment family was well-known in Arles (which was and is a rather small town), had an active social life and several live-in servants. At the time of Yvonne’s death she had a husband and a 7-year old son and Jeanne’s husband Fernand was still alive. How could all these people possibly have been duped to believe that Yvonne was Jeanne?
It sounds improbable, to say the least. But then, one has to remember that living to the age of 122 is very improbable in itself. Novoselov and Zak’s original interest in the case stemmed from the fact that Jeanne Calment was not only old, but improbably old. She was the oldest living human being, not by a whisker but by 3 whol years. Statistically speaking, she was an extreme outlier.
Novoselov and Zak’s research into the life of Jeanne Calment also raises some suspicions. After the death of her daughter Jeanne continued living in the large apartment together with her husband and her son-in-law. Even after her husband’s death in 1942 she continued living with her son-in-law and her grandson, who she, according to contemporary witnesses, raised as her own son.
Yvonne’s husband Joseph Billot was an army officer and supposedly had his own income. But the couple lived in the apartment of Yvonne’s parents and was presumably dependent on Yvonne's parents for their standard of living. That might have been reason enough to try to avoid the inheritance tax.
Jeanne Calment’s husband Fernand died in 1942 from eating cherries tainted by pesticides. This also sounds like an improbable event. I might be suspicious verging on the morbid but a death like this could just as well have been poisoning. Maybe Jeanne, who was in fact Yvonne, detested living with her father, who anyway was getting old (he was 74) and maybe untrustworthy to keep a secret (I hope I am not committing libel by speculating about this).
Murder aside, most people around Jeanne Calment seemed to die off rather early. After the death of her husband in 1942, Jeanne lived inconspicuously with her son-in-law and grandson until 1963 when her son-in-law died and, a few months later, her grandson died in a car accident without leaving any children of his own. Her older brother had also died in 1962. From here on she lived without close relatives. There might have been other social contacts, but most of these must have been dead by the time Jeanne started getting famous, in the 1980s.
Nothing in this story proves that Jeanne Calment was in fact Yvonne Calment. But Valery Novoselov and Nikolay Zak never claim to prove that Yvonne impersonated Jeanne. In a 2020 paper Nikolay Zak only points out that Jeanne Calment’s life is statistically very unlikely and that her DNA, which should be available in a French bio lab, should be analysed for clues as to her real identity.
Never verify a good story
Nikolay Zak has not been granted his wish to have Jeanne Calment’s DNA analysed. Rather the contrary actually, he has been mercilessly hounded by the establishment scientific community and the media. I found two articles from The New Yorker and The Guardian that painted Zak as something of a crank and a conspiracy theorist. They pointed heavily to the fact that Yvonne Calment impersonating her mother for 60 years was highly improbable. While at the same time ignoring the fact that someone living to the age of 122 is at least as improbable. Zak is treated like the person who has something to prove, because he questions the consensus. Never mind that the consensus was something deeply improbable to begin with.
Nikolay Zak is not only attacked for what he says but also for what he is. As a Russian national he is instinctively treated as suspicious (this was before the current war). The Guardian quotes Robert Young, who validates supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, when he "believes the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate attempt to sow doubt about western scientific methods".
This is not only discriminating, it is also plain dumb. Calment's age has not been verified by science, but by bureaucracy. If Zak is trying to sow doubt about Western institutions it is not Western science he is attacking but Western bureaucracy, ironically using the perfectly Western scientific method of statistical analysis. No matter what, Zak’s criticism should be judged on merit and not on person. If Jeanne Calment’s record breaking age is based on fraud rather than longevity it doesn’t matter who first brought the issue up.
I don’t pretend to know who is right or wrong in this story. Being statistically minded and skeptical of social relations I lean towards Jeanne Clement being a fraud. It would have been highly unlikely that Yvonne Calment managed to successfully impersonate her mother for so many years. But it is just as unlikely that Jeanne Calment lived to be fully 3 years older than any other human being. Whichever way you look at it Jeanne Calment’s life is truly improbable.