Ferris Jabr in The New York Times:
In 1990, not long after Jean-Marie Robine and Michel Allard began conducting a nationwide study of French centenarians, one of their software programs spat out an error message. An individual in the study was marked as 115 years old, a number outside the program’s range of acceptable age values. They called their collaborators in Arles, where the subject lived, and asked them to double-check the information they had provided, recalls Allard, who was then the director of the IPSEN Foundation, a nonprofit research organization. Perhaps they made a mistake when transcribing her birth date? Maybe this Jeanne Calment was actually born in 1885, not 1875? No, the collaborators said. We’ve seen her birth certificate. The data is correct.
Calment was already well known in her hometown. Over the next few years, as rumors of her longevity spread, she became a celebrity. Her birthdays, which had been local holidays for a while, inspired national and, eventually, international news stories. Journalists, doctors and scientists began crowding her nursing-home room, eager to meet la doyenne de l’humanité. Everyone wanted to know her story.
Calment lived her entire life in the sunburned clay-and-cobble city of Arles in the South of France, where she married a second cousin and moved into a spacious apartment above the store he owned. She never needed to work, instead filling her days with leisurely pursuits: bicycling, painting, roller skating and hunting. She enjoyed a glass of port, a cigarette and some chocolate nearly every day. In town, she was known for her optimism, good humor and wit. (“I’ve never had but one wrinkle,” she once said, “and I’m sitting on it.”)
By age 88, Calment had outlived her parents, husband, only child, son-in-law and grandson. As she approached her 110th birthday, she was still living alone in her cherished apartment. One day, during a particularly severe winter, the pipes froze. She tried to thaw them with a flame, accidentally igniting the insulating material. Neighbors noticed the smoke and summoned the fire brigade, which rushed her to a hospital. Following the incident, Calment moved into La Maison du Lac, the nursing home situated on the hospital’s campus, where she would live until her death at age 122 in 1997.