Could the oldest woman in the world have been a fraud?
Not many people will recognise the name Jeanne Calment, but she is the main character of this article and her story invites reflection, regardless of the truth of the various claims made about her.
First, let’s see who Jeanne Calment (probably) was: she was born in Arles, in the south of France, in 1875 and died in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days: this happens to be the oldest age, as far as we know, of any human being ever to have lived. This is clearly remarkable – having been born at a time when the average life expectancy of a French woman was 45 years, she managed to outlive not only her own generation, but also a number of successive ones. It is worth noting that average life expectancy has been influenced greatly by the high rate of infant mortality in the past: in 1875 roughly 18% of babies in France died before their 1st birthdays – today it is less than 0.03% – so once you made it through your first year, your prospects were much better.
Of course, becoming really really old is the sort of thing that might get you into the Guinness Book of World Records, and may provoke a certain amount of interest from medical researchers concentrating on life extension, but how much else of interest can there be in the topic? Well, according to Norris McWhirter, one of the founders of the Guinness World Records (and as reported in the article linked below): “No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity.”