The Almost-Immortal 122-Year-Old Jeanne Calment

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives to uncover the astonishing story of Jeanne Louise Calment – the only human in history verified to have lived 120 or more years!

Jeanne Louise Calment was born 21 February 1875 in Arles, France. She lived a remarkably full life and remained vibrant to the end, passing away on 4 August 1997 at the incredible age of 122 years, 164 days! Her entire lifespan is well documented with census and other records, and she is the only human in history verified to have lived 120 or more years.

article of Jeanne Calment celebrating her 122nd birthday, Register Star newspaper article 5 August 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 5 August 1997, page 6

Jeanne was treasured in her hometown of Arles, where she lived her entire life. After the oldest woman on earth died the deputy mayor of Arles, Michel Vauzelle, commented in her obituary:

She was the living memory of our city. Her birthdays were a sort of family holiday, where all the people of Arles gathered around their big sister.

obituary for Jeanne Calment, Register Star newspaper article 5 August 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 5 August 1997, page 6

As recounted in her obituary, Jeanne met Vincent van Gogh when selling art supplies to him at her father’s shop in 1888. She described him as “dirty, badly dressed, and disagreeable.” More than a century later, she made a brief appearance in the 1990 film Vincent and Me – becoming, at the age of 114, the oldest person to ever appear in a movie.

Enter Last Name

Jeanne didn’t have to change her last named when she married Fernand Nicolas Calment, her double cousin. According to Wikipedia, this situation occurred because their paternal grandfathers were brothers and their paternal grandmothers were also sisters, making them cousins on both sides.

Longevity ran in Jeanne’s family. Her father, Nicolas Calment (1838-1931) died just six day shy of 93; her mother, Marguerite Gilles (1838-1924) lived to be 86; and her brother, Francois Calment (1865-1962) lived to be 97.

However, the longevity line ended with Jeanne. She and her husband Fernand had one daughter, Yvonne, who died at the age of 35 of pneumonia leaving behind a young son, Frederic. Jeanne raised the little boy and he became a doctor before dying at age 36 in a car accident in 1963. Her husband had died back in 1942, so Frederic’s death left Jeanne entirely without family.

In 1965, at the ripe old age of 90, Jeanne sold her apartment. The buyer, Andre-Francois Raffray, must have thought he was making a great deal by purchasing it on contingency. Instead of paying the full amount upfront, he agreed to pay the elderly woman 2,500 francs per month until she died. But it was more of a gamble than he anticipated! After paying her faithfully for 30 years he died first, in 1995, and then his widow continued making the payments until Jeanne died in 1997.

Throughout Jeanne’s life, she remained positive. On the occasion of her 116th birthday, she stated:

I think I’ll probably die laughing.

article about Jeanne Calment celebrating her 116th birthday, Boston Herald newspaper article 22 February 1991

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 1991, page 12

Two years later, on her 118th birthday, this headline writer dryly noted “She’s in her very, very late teens.” The article reports:

Her doctors say her memory and sense of humor remain keen.

article about Jeanne Calment celebrating her 118th birthday, Register Star newspaper article 22 February 1993

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 22 February 1993, page 3

As Calment continued aging, reporters kept asking her about her remarkable longevity. As her obituary reports:

Every year on her birthday, Feb. 21, she regaled reporters with quips about her secret of longevity – the list changed every year and included laughter, activity and “a stomach like an ostrich’s.” Her most memorable explanation was that “God must have forgotten me.”

When she died, the town of Arles mourned. As Jeanne’s obituary reports:

In Arles, the flag at city hall was at half-staff Monday. Groups of people lingered in the streets to chat about Calment’s life and death.

“We ended up believing she was immortal,” said Felix Ramadier, a retired worker.

“It’s a bit of our heritage that went away today,” baker Andre Pons said.

What must it have been like to live to be the oldest person ever? Without a doubt, Jeanne had some interesting stories to share. What are you doing today to keep your recollections of the past alive for future generations? Please tell us in the comments section.

Related Articles:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Find the Oldest People to Ever Live, as Reported in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary looks through newspaper articles to find stories about the oldest people to have ever lived—and issues a challenge to readers to find even greater claims of longevity in the newspapers.

With the Baby Boomers aging and advances in medicine, longevity is a hot topic in the news these days. There’s a lot of talk about how long people lived in the past—and speculation about how long people will live in the near future.

Newspapers are a great resource to research how long our ancestors lived—and a good way to keep up with current health, medicine and aging issues going forward. According to knowledgeable sources, the oldest verified person to have ever lived attained the astonishing age of 122 years, 164 days!

Her name was Jeanne Calment (1875-1997), a resident of France. According to this 1997 Georgia newspaper article, she was interred in Trinquetaille Cemetery in Arles, France.

Honoring the Eldest, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 7 August 1997

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 7 August 1997, page 53

Several groups track longevity, including Wikipedia on this Oldest People webpage. Guinness World Records tracks the oldest person by specific activities. Some oldest-person GWR listings include the oldest person to have a total hip replacement, the oldest person to obtain a pilot’s license, and the oldest person to sail around the world.

Those Guinness senior citizen records are all interesting, but it is more intriguing to focus on overall longevity.

Jeanne Calment, who received her certificate from Guinness Records in 1988 at the age of 113, passed away on 4 August 1997. This 1988 South Dakota newspaper article shows her in her ripe old age holding a large certificate noting her birth on 21 February 1875.

Guinness Record, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 June 1988

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 June 1988, page 2

After her in the rankings of greatest longevity are three other centenarian women: Sarah Knauss (119 years), Lucy Hannah (117 years) and Marie-Louise Meilleur (117 years), although some verification of their ages is disputed.

Another entry in the greatest-longevity rankings whose age is disputed is Carrie White, who was supposedly 116 when she died in 1991. She was said to have been born in 1874, a time “when Ulysses S. Grant was president and Gen. George Armstrong Custer was still two years away from his last stand” according to this 1991 newspaper article from Illinois.

Oldest Woman, Register Star newspaper article 15 February 1991

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 15 February 1991, page 6

In 1998, when Sarah Knauss was informed of her honor as the oldest person alive, she reacted with a simple “So what?” according to this 1998 Illinois newspaper story found in the online archives.

Woman Unfazed by Oldest Designation, Register Star newspaper article 19 April 1998

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 19 April 1998, page 3

Genealogical Challenge: Find the Oldest People to Ever Live

But who’s really counting when you are a centenarian of distinction?

We are, that’s who! So readers, we challenge you to verify the life of a centenarian older than any of the women mentioned above—or, alternatively, find the oldest claimed age at death. You’ll find an outrageous assortment of longevity claims reported in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, though certainly none as old as the Bible figure Methuselah—who reportedly attained an age of 969 years!

By browsing this collage of obituaries, you can review a succession of extraordinary longevity claims.

collage of obituaries claiming extreme old age

Collage of obituaries claiming extreme old age

It’s as if each newspaper wanted the bragging rights for the oldest centenarian. Did Andy Roark and Cato Pidgeon really attain the age of 130 years? Was it possible for Nancy Lawton to reach 140, and who was R. Sarman, reported to have lived to 160?

  • Andy Roark: 130 years
  • Cato Pidgeon: 130 years
  • John Hannah: 136 years
  • Nancy Lawton: 140 years
  • Antionio Infante: 150 years
  • Mary Tecuyas: 150 years
  • R. Sarman: 160 years

I tried to verify these age claims, but was not successful. See if you can verify any of these ages—or, if not, see what other incredible age claims you can find in the newspapers.

Follow these guidelines and let us know what you find in the comments on our FaceBook or Blog page. There are two ways to participate in this longevity challenge.

Part 1: Verify a previously unknown oldest person

Submit evidence to prove and verify a centenarian’s age older than Jeanne Calment.

Show supporting documentation, supported by generally accepted genealogical records (GAGR).

These may include civil and church registration, census, family records, and other documentation to show longevity. Tombstone photos alone do not suffice as evidence, as errors in birth years are often caused by confusion between persons of the same name.

Part 2: Find the oldest person as reported in an obituary

Even if you can’t verify the longevity, let’s see who can find the oldest reported person in an obituary or other newspaper article. No evidence is required—just an obituary or newspaper article from GenealogyBank, printed around the time of death. Recollections or reprints from long afterwards do not count.

Let’s see who can come up with the most convincing proof of extreme longevity—and who can come up with the most incredible and unbelievable claim of extreme old age!

Good luck! We look forward to your responses.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The Works of Benjamin Franklin (1817)

painting of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis

Painting: Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis (1725–1802). Credit: National Portrait Gallery; Wikipedia.