She was born in the same year as Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, and witnessed some of the most remarkable events in human history. María Capovilla, the world’s oldest person, died on Sunday at the age of 116, just 18 days shy of her 117th birthday.
The Ecuadorian supercentenarian, who was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest living person in 2005, passed away from pneumonia in her native Guayaquil. She was also the last person verified to have been born in the 1880s.
María Esther Heredia Lecaro de Capovilla was born on September 14, 1889, the daughter of a colonel. She lived a life among the upper-class elite, attending social functions and art classes. She never smoked and drank in moderation.
In 1917, she married Antonio Capovilla, an Austrian officer and sailor, after being introduced by neighbors. “I was at the plantation Josefina and they brought a friend,” Capovilla later recalled of how she met her future husband.
The couple had five children, three of whom were still living at the time of María’s death: Hilda (age 81), Irma (age 79) and son Anibal (age 77). She also had twelve grandchildren, twenty great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Relatives attributed Capovilla’s long life to her mild disposition. “She always had a very tranquil character,” her daughter Irma said in a 2005 interview. “She does not get upset by anything. She has been that way her whole life.”
Capovilla witnessed some of the most significant events of the 20th century. She was 22 when the Titanic sank and 79 when astronauts first set foot on the Moon. She lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and countless political upheavals in her country.
At age 100, Capovilla nearly died and was given last rites, but had been free of health problems since then. In December 2005, aged 116, she was in good health for someone of her age and watched TV, read the paper and walked without the aid of a stick (though she was helped by an aide).
Capovilla was unable to leave her home in the two years before her death and she shared her home with her eldest daughter Hilda, and her son-in-law. In a media interview Capovilla stated her dislike of the fact that women nowadays are permitted to court men, rather than the reverse.
In March 2006, however, Capovilla’s health had declined, and she was not able to read the newspaper any more. She had nearly stopped talking and no longer walked except when helped by two people. Still, Capovilla was able to sit in her chair and fan herself.
She succumbed to a bout of pneumonia in the last week of August 2006. Her family said she died peacefully in her sleep.
With the death of Capovilla, the oldest living person is now Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bolden of Memphis, Tennessee, who turned 116 on August 15.
Dr. Stephen Coles of the Gerontology Research Group, which keeps a global database on people living to be 110 or older, said that genes are the main factor for longevity. “From age 110 on, it’s a 50-50 chance that you’ll live another year,” he said. “There seems to be an invisible barrier at age 112. Hardly anyone lives beyond that age.”