Photo: GEORGES GOBET, AFP/Getty Images
The email came just hours into the new year, landing in the inboxes of the two renowned French gerontologists who had validated the age of the oldest person ever documented in the modern world.
Also copied was the consultant who analyzed age-related cases for the Guinness World Records, which had given Jeanne Calment the title before she died at 122 in 1997.
“Colleagues, take action, take evidence for verification,” read the email, from the account of Russian doctor Valery Novoselov, continuing in cryptically rendered English. “Otherwise, there will be many people who will want to participate in this show.”
Novoselov, the chairman of gerontology for a naturalist society at Moscow State University, had recently conscripted a young researcher to write a report contesting Calment’s record. The study made an explosive claim: that Calment was not Jeanne but her daughter Yvonne, who had stolen her deceased mother’s identity to avoid paying inheritance taxes and was therefore not older than 100. The report kicked off a global storm of media attention that was cresting when the message was sent.
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Novoselov made a vague threat about law enforcement in the email to the three men.
“Do not write about the war between Russia and the West,” he wrote. “Concerning the behavior of one of the participants of the show, a complaint was written to the NIA. Last week I wrote a request to the SK RF (similar to the FBI). Next week there will be an appeal to the FBI.”
The gerontologists who received the email said they already were questioning the scientific soundness of the Russian study. Now one of the people behind it was saying he had made a complaint to the United States’ National Institute on Aging and the SK RF – a federal investigative committee in Russia that deals with politically involved crimes, as well as terrorism and theft.
There were other strange events.
Random accounts had been popping up on the 110 Club, an online forum dedicated to supercentenarians, to talk about the case. The Wikipedia page for Jeanne Calment had recently been subject to a series of edits that wove in doubt about her age. And an internal message from the 110 Club’s administrator’s board appeared on Novoselov’s Facebook page.
This was not how academic disputes were typically settled. And Russia was not particularly well-thought of in the close knit world of people who study the exceptionally old in Europe and the United States. At least one of the scientists started wondering if something else was going on.
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The story of Calment’s remarkably long life has been the stuff of global renown for years, tugging as it does on a deep and innate human fascination with longevity.
To the general public, she is famous for her world record, which made her the subject of glowing media portrayals during the last years of her life – a local celebrity in Arles, the town in South France where she lived.
To scientists and statisticians she is also a source of wonder. She is a statistical outlier, making her hard to easily categorize in long-running debates about whether there is a natural limit to human life span or whether it will continue to rise along as society advances.
If there was no fixed limit, why has her record stood for 20 years, while the pool of centenarians has grown? And if there was, then how would it be possible to surpass it? The next-oldest person on record is American Sarah Knauss, who died at 119 in 1999 – a three-year gap that is a statistical “light-year” away at those advanced ages, scientists said.
“She’s quite an anomaly with regards to longevity,” S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of Calment. “So there’s some people who don’t want to believe her case is real, in part because it doesn’t fit with their preconceived ideas.”
But statistically improbable is not the same thing as statistically impossible.
“While chances are extraordinarily small that someone lives to 122, it cannot be excluded,” said Jan Vijg, the chairman of the Department of Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Scientists who study aging told The Washington Post that they felt the work done by French demographers Jean-Marie Robine and Michel Allard to validate Calment’s age was sound. Still there are some who believe it should be reinvestigated, like research scientist Leonid A. Gavrilov, who argued in a 2000 paper that her age made her a statistical fluke.
And a rumor has been circulating in France for years, demographers said: that Calment had stolen the identity of her mother.
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The author of the Russian report, Nikolay Zak, 35, said the decision to examine Calment’s case was made last year, after a discussion on Gavrilov’s Facebook page.
Zak, a glass blower at Moscow State University who is trained in mathematics and considers gerontology a hobby, said he reached conclusion similar to the one that Gavrilov had 18 years before.
Novoselov, a geriatrician who had recently been appointed to the naturalist society, asked Zak to write a paper on Calment.
“He wanted to improve the quality of papers and he saw that I could write something interesting,” Zak told The Washington Post by phone. “I asked what he wanted me to write about. He said for example you can write about Calment.”
The society is affiliated with Moscow State University but is not an official academic department, Zak said. Novoselov, who has been involved in a high-profile examination of Lenin’s medical records, explained his interest in the case in an interview with the Life Extension Advocacy Organization.
“In my work, I rely on visual assessment a lot,” he told the interviewer. “My eyes were telling me that Jeanne didn’t have the hallmarks of frailty that would correspond to her official age, such as the fact that unlike other supercentenarians, she was able to sit straight in her chair without others’ help.”
Zak, who hadn’t published any work since he was a PhD student about ten years ago, said he researched his paper entirely from Russia, examining Calment’s life through records he found online.
He submitted the Calment study to a Russian scientific journal, which told him they felt it was written too casually, and bioRxiv, a server for articles hosted by a lab in Cold Spring, New York, which also rejected it.
So he turned to ResearchGate, a social networking site for academics and scientists, to self-publish his work. His report was uploaded in early December, with a somewhat sarcastic title: “Jeanne Calment: the secret of longevity.”
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It is not exactly clear who wrote the first story about Zak’s research, but most of the early pieces cite an Agence France-Presse article written by a reporter in Moscow around New Year’s Eve.
The story, which gave prominence to the claims made by Zak and Novoselov and noted calls from some French scientists to exhume Calment’s body, drew a torrent of coverage in the French media in outlets like Le Monde, Le Figaro and L’Express, coming during a news lull around the holiday. Robine, the French demographer, called Zak’s claims “defamatory,” in the AFP.
The notion that the world’s oldest woman had been toppled, or at least called into question proved irresistible to the modern news cycle, where media outlets are short on time and constantly hungry for shareable content.
Soon news organizations from around the globe covered the story: England, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Singapore, Finland, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Canada. Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik News covered it. In the United States, it was picked up by Fox News, CBS, HuffPost, the Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, where it was one of the most read stories of the day.
It was an amount of publicity that most scientists would salivate over, remarkable for a paper that hadn’t even been published by a journal or peer reviewed.
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It was around this time that the three gerontologists – Allard and Robine from France, and Guinness World Records consultant Robert Young in the United States – received the email from Novoselov threatening to report them to Russia’s federal investigative committee. The Washington Post reviewed the email.
The media coverage had masked the tensions seeping out about the Russian’s report. Debates erupted between Zak and some researchers on Facebook. One posted a screenshot of the editing history for Calment’s Wikipedia page, writing about a “war on Wiki.”
In early December, the page appears to have been edited to include a section called “Fraud hypothesis” that cited Zak and Novoselov, sourced to the interview with the Life Extension Advocacy Organization. That section continued to grow over the coming weeks.
The prolific Wikipedia user who appears to have first made the change most regularly edits pages related to space flight and rocketry, but has made small tweaks to pages pertaining to the Russia investigation, among other Russia-related topics, and U.S. politics in recent months.
Young, the Guinness World Records consultant, is also a director at the Gerontology Research Group, which maintains a much-cited database of the world’s oldest people, and the chief administrator of the 110 Club.
He said that he has noticed a series of what he said were suspicious patterns around the Calment case over the last few months. At the 110 Club, new accounts keep showing up to discredit the case, he said. And the posting on Novoselov’s Facebook page of a message Young had written to the 110 Club’s administrators seemed like an intimidation tactic.
The activity had convinced him that there was a coordinated disinformation campaign afoot to discredit the Calment record, he said. The message that had leaked from the administrator’s forum had laid out his fears.
“Greetings, there appears to be an intentional Anti-Jeanne Calment (anti-France=anti-EU=anti-West) disinformation and propaganda campaign coming from Russia and it is targeting many outlets including the 110 Club,” Young had written, speaking of the Wikipedia page and other blogs. “If you see a new sign up who posts as among their very first posts an anti-Calment message, please block their account for 7 days minimum post a message here about it. Thanks.”
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The Washington Post interviewed nine scientists, including Young, with expertise in the world of gerontology, statistics and demography. All but one of the eight who had examined Zak’s research said that they found it lacking if not outright deficient. The two French gerontologists involved in Calment’s verification also questioned it.
Zak’s case that Calment was really her daughter – Yvonne died at 36 in 1934 – is based on a select set of evidence.
Zak argues that Calment’s height loss by the time she was older than 100 was less than what it should have been; Yvonne was taller, he points out. He notes discrepancies he says he found in official documentation for her eye colors over the years. He identifies some mistakes or errors in statements she had given in interviews over the years, including toward the end of her life.
He wrote that he was first tipped off to the tax evasion theory by a pseudonymous Wikipedia user; he later found more fraud accusations against Calment in a little known book from 2007. And he also includes a poll Novoselov had done on Facebook, which one scientists called a “red flag.”
“This reminds me of ‘Nasa stages the moon landing.’ And someone besides Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy,” said Steve Austad, a gerontologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, bringing up two of the more famous modern conspiracy theories. “Which is that people are looking for tiny inconsistencies in evidence that probably have no meaning and then overlooking a vast amount of evidence that her identity is confirmed with more than 30 government documents.”
Some of scientists said they thought it was strange that Zak’s study was publicized before it had been published by a journal.
And most spoke highly of Robine, the well-known and respected gerontologist who validated Calment’s claim more than 20 years ago, saying they believed his work on the Calment case had been thorough. Robine had worked extensively on the case, vetting even small details with Calment like the name of her math teacher. Some scientists pointed to the size of Arles, which had a population of around 30,000 in the early 1900s. If there had been a ruse, the whole town would have been in on it.
“You can talk with any scholar, who would say, we would not accept this even from a student,” Robine said in an interview. “It’s not scientific, there’s no methodology, no hypothesis, no nothing. It’s just, like, a document, bringing more sentences to say Jeanne Calment is not Jeanne Calment.”
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Scientists interviewed were quick to say that Russia did not have a good reputation in the world of longevity research, where frauds are not uncommon and the need for reliable documentation is high.
“The Russians are perhaps some of the most well-known subgroups of the population to provide misleading information on longevity,” Olshansky said, pointing to long-standing legends about the exceptional longevity of the Abkhasian people in Georgia.
Austad told a story about a village in Azerbaijan that was reported to have people who were older than 160.
And Russia’s life expectancy rate – which has been significantly lower than other developed countries historically, particularly for men – is a sensitive subject, experts said.
“If you really want to irritate a Russian, start comparing life expectancy of Russian males with the rest of the world,” said Steve Hall, who spent 30 years as a CIA officer, four of those as a chief of operations in Russia. “The numbers aren’t good.”
According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy in Russia in 2016 was 72; 77 for women, and 66 for men. That number has been typically blamed in part on high rates of alcoholism.
Russia has been largely shut out of the international community of gerontologists that track the super old, as well.
The International Database on Longevity, which is run by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany and the National Institute for Demographic Studies in France, accepts data only from 15 countries, in Europe, Canada, the United States and Japan. Russia is not one of them.
“Russia is not meeting the data quality we need for such a database,” said Robine, who was a founder of the IDL in 2000.
Hall said it was conceivable that a Russian misinformation campaign could target the world of science and medical research.
“When you start combining this idea of is Russia a great power. . . . And then you extend that psyche into the world of science, getting to something that gets into the idea of how well is Russia taking care of its citizenry,” he said. “You start to understand how something like that can happen.”
And Calment could provide an especially attractive target for anyone looking to undermine the established study of supercentenarians.
“If you can show the number one person on the list is false – you kind of topple the whole system,” Young said. “And then you can interject yourself into the deal. No amount of paper validation would be sufficient.”
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Zak, the Russian researcher, stands by his study. He criticized those who had spoken badly of his work, saying that gerontologists who had worked on Calment’s case were too invested in her success as the world’s oldest person.
“Scientists are not like researchers, but like I don’t know, but like dishonest people,” he said. “They were happy to validate her to build their careers. They wanted to see her as a human being living so long and didn’t want to question their own job to find errors.”
He said his study was part of something bigger than just Calment: it showed a larger problem in the small corner of science that deals with the super old.
“The problem in the field is that if they accept that Jeanne is fake then all the other supercentenarians are not validated, because she was the gold standard,” he said. “A lot of people are not acting like scientists but like religious people.”
Of the accusations that have flown since his study was published, he said he was shocked to find “that some gerontologists are themselves conspiracy theorists.”
“They can’t argue scientifically,” he said. “People really don’t understand the arguments. They are searching for enemies.”
Zak’s study is now under review at the aging and life-extension-focused journal Rejuvenation Research. A paper by a separate author that is based off Zak’s work is being reviewed by another publication which a reviewer declined to identity.
There is some discussion about exhuming the bodies of both Calment and her daughter to settle the debate, including a sparsely signed Change.org petition addressed to Emmanuel Macron. Gavrilov, who said he thinks Zak’s study was a student-level paper that cherry picked evidence, still believes that Calment’s case should be examined again.
Scientists said that regardless of the intent behind Zak’s study, the publicity it received was a troubling parable about ease with which unverified information flourishes online, whatever its intent.
Robine and Young compared it to the Russian state-sponsored misinformation campaign that marred the 2016 election in the United States, as even mainstream coverage was manipulated by information that had been injected into social media.
“I don’t know if it’s related to Russia or development of social media, the internet, the fact that today it is just so easy to open a website, to publish any kind of journal,” Robine said. “They are putting one more coin in the machine – they are just making noise. And part of French media – they are happy with this.”
Robine said he had spent the last week defending his work, at times as a guest on radio and television debates constructed by journalists to air both sides of the debate about Calment equally.
“Fake news from the East is able to move so strongly to the West,” he said.
Novoselov has spoken of his pride for Zak’s work.
“For me, people are not divided into Russians, Americans or French, but for those who have a conscience and those who do not have it,” he said in an email to The Washington Post.
Asked about the email he had sent Robine, Allard and Young, he said that “it would not be bad for US law enforcement agencies to see if a certain corruption scheme was created in this scientific topic.”
The gerontology department of the naturalist society that he heads prominently displays one of its main goals for 2019 on its website: “to invalidate” Calment’s record. It lauds the research done by Zak, among others.
“They showed how much the freedom of scientific thought and the level of Russian knowledge sometimes surpasses Western science,” it said.
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The Washington Post’s Amie Ferris-Rotman, Alla Dreyvitser, and Frances Sellers contributed to this report.