Was the oldest woman in the world a fraud?
November 30, 2019 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Or was she really Jeanne Calment? Or was she really Yvonne Calment? -- Or was a young Russian researcher on to something? -- Or was he a troll? -- Or was this all a matter of French national myth? -- Or was this a con? -- Or was this about the honor of Arles as a city? -- Or were suspicious gerontologists on to something?-- Or was this all an attack on Western science?
posted by Hypatia (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating story thanks for posting!
posted by bleep at 8:27 PM on November 30, 2019

Calment’s saga was also touched upon in this recent post.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 9:11 PM on November 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

See also my most favorite story since the "poor documentation" story dropped.
posted by rhizome at 9:38 PM on November 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

What a great story. I certainly think some skepticism is warranted, however both sides appear to be so insanely dogmatic.

A DNA test would presumably resolve it all immediately, and there are no doubt innumerable labs available to conduct it that have no strong opinion on the controversy either way.

It's fascinating how the various French players seem to view any question as a personal or national insult.
posted by smoke at 11:32 PM on November 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I really feel like they should have started with talking about how valuable her blood is perceived to be and then talked about the guy who has a theory that can only be sorted if he gets hold of that blood.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:55 AM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I thought that was the story those parents concocted to abandon their foreign adoptee without backlash, rhizome.

I agree with lesbiassparrow. The response from Robine sounds like blind nationalism and paranoia without that context.
posted by Selena777 at 9:02 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

A DNA test would presumably resolve it all immediately
Would it? I don't know enough about how DNA identification works, but it sounds like it actually could get a little murky in a case where you're trying to distinguish between two closely-related people, neither of whom have living descendants. Even if you got the extended family to provide DNA for comparison, would you necessarily be able to say with certainty that it was one or the other? Especially since Jeanne's husband/ Yvonne's father was from the same small community, where people had presumably been intermarrying forever.

I don't know. I keep coming back to the fact that Yvonne had a seven-year-old son when she supposedly faked her death and took on her mother's identity, and he would either have to have been fooled or been convinced to go along with the deception until the day he died. People do all manner of fucked-up things to their kids, but that seems like a lot to do to avoid paying inheritance tax.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:59 PM on December 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Would it? I don't know enough about how DNA identification works, but it sounds like it actually could get a little murky in a case where you're trying to distinguish between two closely-related people

The article says that Yvonne's parents were first cousins, while Jeanne's parents were not. And it seems that this particular question (was this individual parented by first cousins?) is something that a DNA test can return a straighforward and reliable answer to.

Of course, regardless of the answer, either side could still move the goalposts of certainty by questioning the paternity of either Yvonne or Jeanne.

I do agree though that the 7yo son playing along or being fooled is definitely the most implausible seeming part of the whole story.
posted by 256 at 5:24 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

A DNA test (which usually means analysis of single nucleotide polymorphisms, or blips in DNA code) is pretty good at answering how many degrees of separation between person A and person B, less good at answering whether an individual person was parented by first cousins, or even siblings. I'm not even totally sure about the former, given commonplace intermarriage (throws off your expected rate of SNPs per generation). The usual method would be to find a more distant cousin as a comparator, that's why they debunked Anna Anderson as Anastasia by using Prince Philip's DNA. Or I guess they could exhume Yvonne's son -- Old Lady's sample would be either 50 or 25% of his DNA, depending on whether she was his grandmother or his mother.

I do remember reading something about how at age 100, "Jeanne" had a bunch of cognitive testing and CT scans done, and was noted to be on par with a 75-80 year old, which seems a point in favor of a switch. Regardless of what actually happened, it's a great story. Especially the bit where the guy thinks he's getting a great deal on an apartment but he gravely underestimates Mme Calment!
posted by basalganglia at 7:00 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

From a purely statistical point of view, Calment and Knauss are both suspicious.

Take a look at this table. Everyone behind these two are clustered tightly, sometimes mere days apart. And then you have Knauss and Calment leaping forward.

It is as if, in running, after decades of athletes shaving off seconds, someone were to come along and shave off ten seconds.

The world's oldest men list has no such anomaly.
posted by vacapinta at 9:08 PM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

On the other hand... after years of competitors shaving off inches or fractions of an inch, Bob Beamon broke the long jump record by nearly two feet. Massive outliers do happen.

What I have trouble picturing is... she didn't move towns or anything, nor was she a hermit, she seems to have been a bit of a bon vivienne, skiing and living the good life. How would that *work*, in a town as small as Arles was then? Did she somehow manage to totally change every social and commercial establishment, so that no one noticed her calling herself her mother's name? When she started to get famous for being old, was there no elderly person who laughed and told their family "Ah, Yvonne, I remember when she started pretending to be her mother!"? In the 1990s, there'd still be plenty of people who remembered people from 1934. I'd expect *some* kind of rumor to travel.

There's certainly reason to be suspicious from a mathematical viewpoint, but I have trouble seeing how it would work.
posted by tavella at 8:06 AM on December 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

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