Mme Calment's other secret?

Favourite stories can, in the process of retelling, turn into legends. But might it eventually become difficult to distinguish between legend and myth? Indeed, are we longevity watchers about to lose a favourite story? Consider what follows, dear readers, and decide for yourselves...

Claims to extreme lifespan require independent verification for good reason. If practitioners are to make sense of the course of human longevity, the data gathered on centenarians and supercentenarians must be of high quality. Take for example, Mbah Gotho, who purportedly died aged 146 years old in 2016. Since Indonesia didn't officially record births until 1900 there existed something of a verification deficit. That deficit ultimately meant Grandpa Ghoto's actual age was not adopted to make him the oldest verified human, ensuring Guinness record holder Jeanne Calment's position remained secure. Or did it?

When Valery Novoselov encountered two different papers on survival at advanced ages, one aspect intrigued him. Although both Gavrilova et al (2017) and Barbi et al (2018) disagreed in certain respects, beyond dispute was that Jeanne Calment's data point was an outlier for both models proposed. This spurred the thought that there should be a revalidation of the oldest verified human. And, in conducting that exercise, the thought turned into suspicion:

"In 1934, there was a death in the Calment family. The official story is that in 1934, Jeanne had lost her only daughter, Yvonne. We think that in reality it was Jeanne who had died, aged almost 59, and her daughter took her name and personality."

Assistant Professor Valery Novoselov
Department of Gerontology and Geriatrics of RUDN University (Moscow)

The first question that arises is one of motive, and it appears there were two strong financial incentives for a daughter to impersonate her dead mother. The first was to avoid inheritance tax on the parental property, and the second was to continue receiving payment of an annuity. The second question is: why wouldn't a deception have been uncovered earlier? There is the suggestion that family records were intentionally destroyed on Jeanne's request. And a published book on French insurance from 2007 contains the claim that suspicion existed within the industry of an annuity being paid to Calment's daughter in lieu of Jeanne Calment herself. Despite this, the book suggests, it was decided in concert with public authorities to ignore the potential identity theft due to the by-then legendary status of the woman within French society.

Intriguingly, our previous blog considered Calment's status as one of a select group of long-lived smokers. The referenced research defined long-lived via the age range 90-99; even in the deception scenario, Yvonne Calment survived to age 99, so the same point can still be made. However, the neurological exam which supposedly took place at the age of 118 seems far less exceptional given Yvonne was 23 years her mother's junior with an age at the time of examination in her mid-nineties.

This post has considered some incendiary claims and they require full investigation. I doubt we'll see any change to the Guinness Book of Records entry in time for Christmas 2018, but as for 2019, who knows? We may all be about to lose one of our legends!


Gavrilova. N.S. et al (2017) Mortality Trajectories at Exceptionally High Ages: A Study of Supercentenarians. Living 100 Monograph. 2017 Jan; 2017(1B):

Barbi. E. et al (2018) The plateau of human mortality: Demography of longevity pioneers. Science. doi: 10.1126/science.aat3119.

Written by: Gavin Ritchie
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