split image of Jeanne Calment

When her 73-year-old husband, Fernand, died in 1942 (reportedly due to cherry poisoning), Jeanne Calment, aged 67, probably never would have guessed she’d go on to live for a further five and a half decades, especially given the fact that the average life expectancy for a French woman born in the 19th century was 40-50 years.

Jeanne, born in Arles, France, on 21 February 1875 (14 years before the Eiffel Tower was built), lived on to become the oldest person ever verified, reaching the age of 122 years 164 days when she passed away on 4 August 1997.

Her age was well-documented throughout her life; her birth certificate was preserved and she was listed in 14 census records.

Several people have been claimed to be older than Jeanne, but there has never been enough evidence to authenticate them.

Jeanne Calment aged 40 (1915)

After getting married in 1896 to Fernand, who was a wealthy distant cousin of hers, Jeanne enjoyed a life of leisure within the upper society of Arles.

She lived in a large apartment above Fernand’s family’s drapery store, and she had servants to cook and clean for her.

Without the need to work, Jeanne spent her time practising hobbies such as fencing, hunting, mountaineering, swimming, tennis, roller skating, cycling (which she continued to do until she was 100), and making music.

In 1898, aged 22, Jeanne gave birth to her only child, Yvonne Marie Nicolle Calment, who, in 1926, gave birth to her only child, Frédéric.

Sadly, Jeanne’s daughter and grandson both passed away at relatively young ages: Yvonne died of pleurisy on her 36th birthday and Frédéric died in a car crash aged 37, in the same year that his father (Jeanne’s son-in-law) also died.

With no remaining heirs, in 1965, 90-year-old Jeanne signed a ‘reverse mortgage’ with a lawyer named André-François Raffray. In exchange for ownership of her apartment, Raffray – then aged 47 – agreed to pay Jeanne 2,500 francs per month and let her live there until she died.

Unfortunately for him, he did not know that he’d made a deal with someone who would go on to become the oldest recorded person in history.

Despite being almost double Raffray’s age when making the deal, Jeanne incredibly outlived him. He passed away aged 77 in 1995, by which time Jeanne had received payments totalling over double the apartment’s value.

After Raffray’s death, his family were required to continue paying, despite the fact that Jeanne had not lived in the apartment since 1985, having moved into a nursing home at the age of 110.

Jeanne Calment in her old age

Jeanne reportedly attributed her remarkable longevity to a diet rich in olive oil, which she also rubbed into her skin daily.

Although her diet was mostly healthy, she enjoyed indulging in chocolate (sometimes consuming a kilogram per week), and after her meals she would always eat dessert, drink a small glass of port wine, and smoke a cigarette.

Jeanne smoked for almost an entire century; she began aged 21 and stopped when she was 117, as using a lighter became difficult due to her worsening eyesight.

Despite this habit, Jeanne remained in good health throughout her life, and she once stated on television that she’d never been ill.

She was sent to the hospital for heart failure aged 111 but was successfully treated, and she later suffered from arthropathy (of which arthritis is a form of) but was again successfully treated with anti-inflammatory medication.

In 1988, aged 112, Jeanne was recognized as the world’s oldest living person, and two years later, aged 114, she appeared as herself in a film about Vincent van Gogh, titled Vincent et moi, thereby becoming the world’s oldest actress ever.

Jeanne claimed to have met the artist when she was a young teen working in her uncle’s shop, and later recalled that he was “ugly as sin, had a vile temper and smelled of booze,” although she said she’d forgiven him for his bad manners.

Jeanne Calment celebrating her 122nd birthday (1997)

Despite moving to a nursing home, Jeanne maintained a high degree of autonomy. After waking up at 6:45 a.m. each day and praying, she did stretches in her armchair, washed herself unassisted with a flannel, and made herself fruit salads after eating her breakfast of coffee and rusks.

The rest of her daily routine consisted of a two-hour nap in her armchair, chatting with her friends in the care home, eating dinner, and listening to music before going to bed at 10 p.m. She attended evening prayers every Friday, and Mass on Sundays.

The most important thing that people can do to live a longer life is to be a self-directed individual. That means they take charge of their daily routine: they go to bed at the same time every day, they get up the same time every day, they control their food portions, they stay physically active, they stay mentally active, they stay socially engaged. – Robert Young, Guinness World Records’ lead gerontology consultant

A month before her 115th birthday, Jeanne fell and fractured her femur. After undergoing surgery, she required the use of a wheelchair and could no longer keep to her daily routine.

In 1995, aged 120, Jeanne was recognized as the oldest person to have ever lived. She remained mentally sharp and her quick wit remained intact, as she demonstrated when asked by journalists what kind of future she expected – “A very short one,” she replied.

Jeanne passed away on 4 August 1997, aged 122 years 164 days. Despite her senses having degraded to the point where she was almost fully blind and deaf, she was in good health in the months leading up to her death, according to Jean-Marie Robine, one of the social scientists who validated Jeanne’s age.

Jeanne has now held the oldest person ever record for almost three decades and remains the only person to have reached the age of 120.

However, with life expectancies increasing across the world, her record could very well be broken in the near future.

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