Some researchers have cast doubt on the record of the celebrated supercentenarian.
People in France remember the summer of 1997 for the deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Jeanne Calment. The first became a household name by marrying into royalty; the second, by caring for the world’s sick and poor. Jeanne Calment, however, was an accidental icon, her celebrity the result of a form of passivity. For a hundred and twenty-two years, five months, and fourteen days, Calment managed not to die.
She was born at home on the Rue du Roure, in Arles, one of only four addresses she ever held. That February morning, in 1875, lavender smoke commingled with the cold in the tight streets of La Roquette, a traditional neighborhood of fishermen and the maritime trades. Plastic, tea bags, public trash cans, and the zipper had yet to come into the world. The life expectancy for a French woman was forty-five. Approximately one billion five hundred million people walked the planet, and Calment would outlive them all.
The first public attack on Jeanne Calment’s authenticity appeared in the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, in November, 2018. In an interview, Valery Novoselov, a geriatrician and the director of the gerontology chapter of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, announced his intention to disprove Calment’s claim to the longevity title. A burly former doctor in the Russian Army, Novoselov said that he had been looking at some photographs of Calment and found that she simply didn’t display the physical characteristics one would expect of a person her age. “In the picture of 110-year-old Jeanne, I see a strong lady a little younger than 90,” he declared.
He had shared his doubts with Nikolay Zak, a mathematician he knew from Facebook. In contrast to Novoselov, Zak had a dishevelled look and résumé, having published little since a 2007 thesis. He was working as a glassblower, fabricating flasks and beakers for the chemistry department at Moscow State University. Intrigued, he agreed to work on the Calment case. Using a database of centenarians, he calculated that the probability of someone reaching the age of a hundred and twenty-two was “infinitesimally small.” As Zak explained to Komsomolskaya Pravda, the numbers were telling him that Calment couldn’t have lived that long.
On December 19, 2018, Nikolay Zak posted a preprint—in academia, a draft of a paper that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed—to ResearchGate, a social network for scientists. It began with a quote from Genesis (“Then the lord said, ‘My spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years’ ”), and reiterated in somewhat more decorous language the case that he and Novoselov had made to Komsomolskaya Pravda, adding some new details. On one page, Zak would perform complicated mathematical equations; on the next, he’d cite Wikipedia or the Daily Mail. At times, his logic leaped into the realm of pure speculation. “Being in the nursing home and not being able to destroy the documents herself, Jeanne resorted to the help of a distant relative,” he wrote, referring to Calment’s decision to burn most of her personal papers. “Most likely, it was a result of cold calculation and acute necessity instead of an emotional act.”
Zak’s paper, though unconventional, was enticing. The A.F.P., France’s wire service, picked it up, and, on New Year’s Eve, articles about the controversy appeared in a number of newspapers. Soon the Calment story had become an “affaire,” an appellation that, in France, describes a dramatic episode while more or less guaranteeing its escalation. France 2, the national television broadcaster, devoted a prime-time special to the “enigma of Jeanne Calment,” and Le Monde examined the “crazy hypothesis of two Russian researchers,” citing experts who likened the Russians’ methods to those of “fake news.”
The case might have remained largely the concern of gerontologists and the French had Aubrey de Grey not got involved. The posh, wild-bearded panjandrum of the anti-aging movement, de Grey was born in London in 1963. After a career in artificial intelligence, he began studying biology, earning a Ph.D. from Cambridge at the age of thirty-seven. Now, as the chief science officer of the sens (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Mountain View, California, he is attempting to develop medical therapies that will reverse aging. He claims that there are human beings alive right now who could live more than a thousand years.
De Grey is the editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, a biogerontology journal, which, in February, 2019, published an article by Zak, “Evidence That Jeanne Calment Died in 1934—Not 1997.” The article was based on his preprint, with some changes and new conjectures. Notably, Zak contended that photographs of Yvonne showed the presence of a fibroma—a fleshy bump—on the tip of her nose, which matched with one in a picture of Calment as an old woman. “Interestingly, it is absent from later photos, indicating that it was removed,” he wrote, to account for pictures of Calment as an even older woman with no such fibroma. Earlier, Zak had raised the possibility of exhuming Calment’s body; now he proposed another way to examine her DNA. Calment had reportedly given a blood sample to researchers as part of the Chronos Project, a pioneering survey of more than a thousand French centenarians, conducted in the nineteen-nineties by the Fondation Jean Dausset-ceph, a renowned genetic-research center. Zak asserted “that biological material from the person who died in 1997” was likely still in storage.
S. Jay Olshansky, a gerontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me, “I did not find the paper to be of a very high quality. If I were the editor, I would not have accepted it.” Many readers were confounded: why had de Grey decided to bestow the imprimatur of academic respectability on Zak’s work? Outlandish conspiracy theories proliferated. Was de Grey, an “international adjunct professor” at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, somehow in league with the Russians? Was it Big Pharma? Was it Putin? Or was there a plot involving the Lifeboat Foundation, a techno-survivalist organization to which de Grey and Zak both belonged, which had been infiltrated by Russian spies? “These are bad guys, playing nasty games,” Robert Young, a consultant for Guinness World Records and a director of the Gerontology Research Group, which maintains a database of supercentenarians, told me. “This is a manufactured controversy—we don’t even consider the case to be disputed.”
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