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'People are caught up in magical thinking': was the oldest woman in the world a fraud?
Jeanne Calment was 122 when she died. But last year a 🇷🇺n scientist claimed she was a con artist, sparking an international dispute over the woman who may still hold the secret to eternal life
If time makes fools of us all, you couldn’t blame André-François Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a lawyer 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 apartment from one of his clients “en viager”: a form of property sale by which the buyer makes a monthly payment until the seller’s death, when the property becomes theirs.
His client, Jeanne Calment, was 90 and sprightly for her age; she liked to surprise people by leaping from her chair at the hairdresser. But still, it couldn’t be long: Raffray just had to shell out 2,500 francs a month 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 rooms 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 improbable, Calment held court 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 journalists and local
notables would regularly visit for an audience. “I waited 110 years to be famous. I mean to make the most of it,” she was reported to have said. One party piece was recounting how, as a teenager, she had met Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled,
she said, and locals called him “the dingo”.The pensioner appeared blessed 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 odd zinger: “I wait for death… and journalists,” 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 put it, had only so much road to run. By 1996,
she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, largely blind and deaf, she finally succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest validated human lifespan in history.
Some, though, believe it’s not just time that makes fools of us all.
Last year, a Russian mathematician called 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 surpassed previous record-holders
(the nearest verified claim at the time was 117), Zak had dug into her biography and uncovered a host of inconsistencies. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking site, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency,
Zak’s paper claimed that Jeanne Calment had actually died in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this point, Zak alleged, her daughter had assumed her identity – they looked similar –
and she kept up the pretence for more than 60 years.When the paper went viral, the French press exploded. How dare someone slur a national treasure, the woman dubbed “la doyenne de l’humanité”? And who was this upstart Russian anyway?
Zak wasn’t even a gerontologist, a specialist 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 in response. He published an expanded paper in the US-based
journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It compiled a dossier of 17 pieces of biographical evidence supporting the “switch” theory, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old Jeanne (a change in eye colour from “dark” to green)
and discrepancies in the verbal testimonies she gave 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 also claimed there had been no public celebration of Jeanne’s 100th birthday, a key reference
point in old-age validations As Zak admitted, there was no smoking gun; but together these pieces of circumstantial evidence did emit a fair amount of smoke. Crucially, he suggested a plausible motive: that Yvonne had taken her
mother’s place in order to avoid punitive inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period ran as high as 35%.The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological circles, becoming increasingly heated.
Many dismissed Zak’s switch theory as Russian-sponsored “fake news”, as the newspaper Le Parisien put it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak expressed doubts about the validation of
Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian insurance office manager 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 take the lead in the gerontology field?
For the people of Arles, it was a matter of local pride. They quickly rallied behind Calment and formed a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to dismantle Zak’s claims. 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 shot back, on their open counter-investigation forum:
perhaps the “Arlésiens” were just blinded by their allegiances. “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.
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