She was born in the same year that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and Mark Twain published Tom Sawyer. She saw the rise and fall of empires, the birth of cinema and television, and the first steps on the moon. She smoked, drank and ate chocolate until the end of her days. She was Jeanne Calment, the woman who defied death and lived to 122 – or so she claimed.
Jeanne Calment’s extraordinary longevity has captivated the world for decades. She is the only person verified to have reached the age of 120, and holds the record for the longest documented human lifespan of 122 years and 164 days. She died in 1997 in Arles, France, the same town where she was born in 1875.
But Jeanne Calment was not just a passive witness of history. She was also an active participant in it. She claimed to have met Vincent van Gogh when she was a teenager, and described him as “very ugly” and “we called him le dingo”. She married her second cousin, Fernand, and had a daughter, Yvonne. She enjoyed sports, music and art. She became a celebrity in her old age, starring in films and releasing a rap CD. She had a witty and optimistic personality. She once said, “I’ve only ever had one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.”
Her remarkable life attracted media attention and medical studies. Scientists wanted to know the secrets of her longevity and whether she had a genetic advantage or a special lifestyle. She revealed that she used olive oil for her skin and diet, ate chocolate every day, and drank port wine. She also said that laughter was the best medicine. She joked, “I’ve been forgotten by our good Lord.”
But not everyone believes that Jeanne Calment was telling the truth. Some researchers have cast doubt on her age, suggesting that she was actually her daughter, Yvonne, who assumed her identity in 1934 to avoid inheritance taxes. They point to inconsistencies in her appearance, her documents and her interviews. They claim that Yvonne died at the age of 99 in 1997, not Jeanne.
However, most experts dismiss this theory as baseless and absurd. They argue that there is no solid evidence to support it and that it contradicts the extensive verification process that Jeanne Calment underwent during her lifetime. They also point out that many of her relatives, friends and acquaintances confirmed her identity and her stories.
The debate over Jeanne Calment’s age is not just a matter of curiosity or controversy. It also has implications for our understanding of human longevity and its limits. Some scientists believe that Jeanne Calment was an extreme outlier who reached the maximum possible lifespan for humans. Others think that she was not unique and that humans can potentially live longer with better health and lifestyle interventions.
Whether Jeanne Calment was a fraud or a phenomenon, she remains a fascinating figure in history and science. Her life spanned three centuries and countless changes. She once said, “I’ve been forgotten by our good Lord.” But she has not been forgotten by us.