On this day in August 1997, Jeanne Louise Calment died of old age. In fact, she died of very old age and is considered the oldest person that has ever lived, at 122 years and 164 days… or 44,724 days in total, accounting for leap years. She was also the only person proven to have survived for over 120 years—although others have also claimed to have achieved this, without scientific confirmation.
Calment lived and died in Arles in France, which is famous for another inhabitant with a much shorter (and more troubled) life: the painter Vincent Van Gogh. In 1988 the centenary of his visit to Arles, which inspired some of his most amazing paintings, brought reporters from all around the world to this beautiful sleepy town. A then-113-year-old Calment recounted to the press a tale of meeting the artist a century prior in her uncle’s fabric shop; she said she had sold him some coloured pencils, and described him as “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable… very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick.” After this entertaining interview, her fame escalated. Furthermore, a couple of years later she was given a cameo in the feature film Vincent and Me, making her the oldest person to ever appear in a film.
Jeanne’s father was from a family of shipbuilders and her mother was from a family of millers; her father lived to 99, her mother lived to 86, and her older brother Francois lived to 100. However, the family that she started herself suffered from awfully bad luck. In 1896 she married her second cousin Fernandez Nicolas Calment, a very wealthy shop owner, but he died in 1942 after eating a dessert prepared with poisonous spoiled cherries. Their only child, Yvonne Marie Nicolle Calment, had already died in 1934, of pneumonia. And their only grandchild, Frederic Billiot, died in an automobile accident in 1963.
As for the secret to the more-than-supercentenarian’s extraordinary longevity, well no-one is exactly sure of why she lived so long. Perhaps it was because her husband’s abundant wealth allowed her to live a pleasant life of leisure, pursuing her hobbies such as tennis, swimming, roller-skating, piano, and cycling—she continued to ride her bicycle until she was 100. Perhaps it was because of her copious use of olive oil, which she poured on all her food and rubbed all over her skin to keep herself looking young. Perhaps it was her taste for fortified port wine and around a kilogram of chocolate a week. She did have one unhealthy habit: she smoked a couple of cigarettes every day, from the age of 21 to 117. But alas, that didn’t stop her from achieving the longest confirmed life span in history.