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Was the World’s Oldest Person a Fraud?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2020

Maybe it was all the Guinness Book of World Records reading when I was a kid, but I probably pay more attention than many people to the list of the world’s oldest people. At 122 years and 164 days, Jeanne Calment is the oldest person to have ever lived. At the time of her death, she had lived for almost 5 years longer than the previous record-holder, which I have always found a little fishy. So it was with great interest that I read Lauren Collins’ New Yorker piece on a recent challenge to Calment’s age.

The passage of time often quells controversy, but, in the Calment case, it only unsettled the dust. As the world’s population continued to grow, the cohort of people living to the age of a hundred and twenty-two did not. More than two decades after Calment’s death, her record still stood, making her a more conspicuous outlier with every year that went by. Either she had lived longer than any human being ever or she had executed an audacious fraud. As one observer wrote, “Both are highly unlikely life stories but one is true.” In “Les 120 Ans de Jeanne Calment,” her validators had reproduced the only picture known to exist of the two Calment women as adults. In it, Yvonne appears to be sitting on a windowsill. Jeanne stands to her left, behind a table, looking down at a basket of flowers and a wrapped gift. The women are both wearing white shirts and dark sweaters. Accompanying the photograph was a tantalizing caption: “Jeanne and Yvonne, her daughter. Which one is which?”

I won’t spoil the ending, but if you’re aware of Betteridge’s law you may already have a good idea what it is.