Introduction

Humankind has always had a great fascination with individuals that are outliers in various aspects of life. Be it the fastest 100 meters sprinter or the tallest person ever. Individuals with such attributes often warrant interest and respect from their surroundings. Still, few concepts warrant more interest than the people who have lived the longest (Milholland & Vijg, 2022). We, as individuals, have a finite time on this earth and most people would give anything to be able to enjoy an extended life. There’s a reason why there was a great interest in discovering the fountain of youth or finding a way to obtain eternal life in the past. This is therefore one of the reasons why there is an interest in finding out who has lived the longest. To complicate this process is the fact that some individuals exaggerate their ages for a variety of reasons to appear older than they actually are. Some do it for pension reasons, others as a result of a mix-up in identities or uncertainty when they were born with, and some do it for notoriety (Schoenhofen et al., 2006).

In my years of researching supercentenarians, I have seen a great deal of age exaggeration with claims of having lived to be older than 115 being common. However, most of these claims are untrue. Still, in the history of supercentenarian research, some supercentenarians have been accepted as validated, only to later have their statuses disputed.

Pierre Joubert (1701? – 1814)

Early research disproved many historical supercentenarian claims from the 18th and 19th centuries, but one person that was believed to have been accurate by demographers was Canadian man Pierre Joubert (Jeune & Poulain, 2020). There existed proof of birth and death for this case, which resulted in the inclusion of Joubert as validated in several lists and by scholars up until the early 1990s, when his age was debunked by revealing that “Pierre Joubert” was actually two individuals; a father and a son and that the father’s date of birth had erroneously been attributed to his son with the same name (Charbonneau, 1990). His validation was swiftly retracted following this revelation.

Thomas Peters (1745? – 1857)

One of many inaccurate inclusions of “verified” exceptional longevity by Guinness World Records. Thomas Peters was allegedly born in the Netherlands on 6 April 1745 and died shortly before his claimed 112th birthday in 1857 (Jeune & Poulain, 2020). Peters claimed to have been a soldier and serving under Napoleon. His parents died when he was a small child, and he grew up as a “regiments-child” in the army. No early-life documentation appears to ever have existed for Peters and his age claim was rather accepted as verified as a result of hearsay. Supercentenarian fans have been trying to identify his age for several years but given the lack of information about his early life it is at present unlikely that any documents will be located. And if they are, they will most likely support him being much younger than claimed.

Media coverage of Ann Pouder’s “110th” birthday, inflating her age by one year.

Ann Pouder (1807? – 1917)

Ann Pouder is still considered to be the first American supercentenarian by less serious organizations. She was born in London, England as Ann Alexander and emigrated to the United States at a young age. Her age was supposedly validated by Alexander Graham Bell, but exactly what sort of documentation he utilized is unknown. What however is known is that when Dr. Andrew Holmes and I applied modern validation practices to attempt to verify her age, we discovered that she was in fact not a supercentenarian but rather “only” 109 years old. This was supported by her baptismal record, which was clear with the fact that she was born on 3 May 1808 rather than 8 April 1807. While not as egregious as other claims listed, being one year younger means that she wasn’t a supercentenarian.

Martha Graham (1842? – 1959)

Long recognized as the oldest person ever for about two decades by some organizations was Martha Graham, a former slave from North Carolina, and for whom the best evidence supporting her being a supercentenarian came from the 1880 census, which listed her as 35 years old. While she hasn’t been officially debunked, only disputed, observing her as being only 17 when she married in 1874 suggests that she was about a decade younger, which is further supported by the fact that she had several children under the age of five in the 1900 census. A woman giving birth in her 50s several times in the 1800s is unheard of and her claim can thus be considered exaggerated.

Shigechiyo Izumi, photo courtesy of Associated Press

Shigechiyo Izumi (1865? – 1986)

When Jeanne Calment surpassed the age of 120 years, 237 days, in 1995 she was recognized as the oldest person ever. This is due to the fact that Japanese man Shigechiyo Izumi was still considered validated at this point. Izumi wouldn’t be retracted from most lists until the 2000s. Izumi worked as a farmer and would retire only as an alleged centenarian. While Izumi hasn’t been debunked officially, indications exist that what might have happened is that a younger brother was given the same name as his deceased older brother and thus added a potential 15 years to his listed age (Asahi Shimbun, 1987; Young, 2020). This led to him losing his status as the oldest verified man of all time. There are more issues with his claim, including that his wife also exaggerated her age, which makes the claim to 120 years seem far-fetched.

Matthew Beard (1870? – 1985)

Matthew Beard was at one point considered the oldest man ever. He claimed to have been born in Virginia and lived an eventful life, starting work at a young age and being a war veteran. Beard would settle in Florida and have several children. He supposedly built a house when he was a centenarian. Research by me some years back cast doubt on his claim. A “Mathew Baird” from Tennessee, with parents loosely matching those in Beard’s SS-5 application form, was listed as age 12 in 1880 and age four in 1870, it was possible that this was the person that was linked by researchers to the man that died in 1985. My research did cast doubt on this, especially since this child’s mother had an entirely different last name than what was listed in the SS-5 form. Instead, a match was found for a Matthew Beard born in Georgia in October 1886 with parents that had matching names to his application form. As is, there isn’t any documentation from before 1930 supporting him being a supercentenarian, which makes him disputed.

Media coverage of Carrie White’s “116th” birthday

Carrie White (1874? – 1991)

After the death of Florence Knapp in 1988, Jeanne Calment was briefly purported to be the oldest living person in the world. A Florida woman named Carrie White was however later declared as the oldest living person (Young, 2010). It was alleged that White was born in 1874 and that she had resided in a nursing home since the age of 35 when she was committed by her husband as a result of  “mental illness.” While mid-life census records did support her being as old as claimed, an examination of her 1900 census revealed that she was actually born in 1888 and only 11 years old. A realization was thus made that the wrong Carrie Joyner had been linked to the Carrie White that died in 1991.

Lucy Hannah (1875? – 1993)

When Hannah died in 1993, she was believed to have been the oldest woman to ever having died, being outlived by Calment by four years. Hannah was allegedly born in Alabama in 1875, although she claimed to have been born in 1874, and to have died in Michigan in 1993. She was likely validated based on a match where a four-year-old Lucy Terrell was living with her grandparents in Alabama in 1880. Research by me revealed that the names of the grandparents of the Lucy Hannah didn’t match these names. Further, a match for her parents in 1880 was found and there was no daughter named Lucy listed. Instead, a marriage record from 1943 was located, where a Lucille Brown (with parents with the exact same names as in Lucy Hannah’s SS-5 form) was listed as having been born in 1895. Given that there now didn’t exist any documentation supporting Lucy Hannah being a supercentenarian, her age was disputed.

Discussion

Supercentenarian research has advanced over the past few decades and the standards for age validation are increasingly more stringent than previously (at least within LongeviQuest). Many people have claimed to have been supercentenarians, but far from all have actually lived as long as claimed. The people listed above are only a few of all exaggerated supercentenarian claims known to exist. There is need for strict validation standards and for research to be re-checked by a fresh pair of eyes every now and then to ensure that the quality of the validation holds up as the amount of available documentation increases.

References

Asahi News Service. (1987).  Japanese Expert Debunks Idea of  “Village of 100-Year-Olds.” (April 6, 1987).

Charbonneau, H. (1990). Pierre Joubert a-t-il vécu 113 ans? Memoires de la Société génealogique canadienne-francaise, 41, 45–48.

Jeune, B., & Poulain, M. (2020). The First Supercentenarians in History, and Recent 115 + −Year-Old Supercentenarians. An Introduction to the Following Chapters. In: Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J.W. (eds) Exceptional Lifespans. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_14

Milholland, B., & Vijg, J. (2022). Why Gilgamesh failed: the mechanistic basis of the limits to human lifespan. Nature Aging, 2, 878-884. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43587-022-00291-z

Schoenhofen, E. A., Wyszynski, D. F., Andersen, S., Pennington, J., Young, R., Terry, D. F., & Perls, T. T. (2006). Characteristics of 32 supercentenarians. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 54(8), 1237–1240. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2006.00826.x

Young, R.D. (2010). Age 115 or more in the United States: Fact or fiction? In: Maier, H., Gampe, J., Jeune, B., Robine, JM., Vaupel, J. (eds) Supercentenarians. Demographic Research Monographs

Young R. (2020). If Jeanne Calment Were 122, That Is All the More Reason for Biosampling. Rejuvenation research23(1), 48–64. https://doi.org/10.1089/rej.2020.2303

Introduction

While exceptional longevity has long been a fascination for many individuals, there appears to be some that believe that there has been a tapering of regarding how long a person can actually live. Is this true? Have we already observed the oldest person that will ever live?

The first centenarian and supercentenarian?

It is likely that the first centenarian lived in ancient times and belonged to the upper class. While achieving centenarianhood may have occurred then, such instances are unverifiable. Early verifiable centenarians appeared in the 17th century, and although Eilif Philipsen is recognized as the first fully verifiable centenarian, well-documented claims born earlier than him do exist. One of the earliest known documented centenarians was the French veteran André Levesque de La Souctière (1668-1772) (Antigny, n.y.). However, the vast majority of early centenarians is unknown, making it currently impossible to determine who the first centenarian was.

A recent revelation in the field of exceptional longevity posits that the first person to become a supercentenarian may not have been Geert Adriaans Boomgaard but rather another individual from the Netherlands. Unveiled at the 15th Supercentenarian Seminar in Paris by Dutch researcher van Dijk in November 2023 was the case of Hendrika Link-Scholte(n). She was presented in a poster presentation including documentation indicating that she may have lived to be a supercentenarian. While further research is needed to fully authenticate her age, she could potentially be considered for inclusion on some lists with lower standards. What will surprise most is that she was allegedly born in 1686, more than a century prior to Boomgaard, and died in 1797.

The recognized titleholders as the oldest person ever (and others that have been considered for the title)

The (so far) first fully verified person to reach age 110 was Geert Adriaans Boomgaard, a Dutch man born in 1788 who died at the age of 110 years, 135 days. Remarkably, Boomgaard was a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He was born and died in Groningen, the son of a boat captain, and would himself also follow in his father’s footsteps. Late in life, Boomgaard would be recognized for his longevity and has long been a validated supercentenarian. In 2021, a thorough validation of his age was presented (Chambre et al., 2021).

Geert Boomgaard at age 100. Source: Beeldbank Groningen

Boomgaard’s reign as the oldest person ever would stand for only four years when Margaret Ann Neve of the small island Guernsey of the Channel Islands would surpass his age (Poulain et al., 2021). Neve led a life of relative leisure, born in St Peter Port in 1792 into a family of high standing. She was married but didn’t have any children. Neve enjoyed traveling and learning languages. As with Boomgaard, Neve started receiving accolades for her longevity after passing the century mark. She passed away of natural causes in 1903, aged 110 years, 321 days.

After the death of Neve, no other person would reach supercentenarian status for the next 22 years. Although Ann Pouder, notably “verified” by Alexander Graham Bell, was previously recognized as a supercentenarian, her age was disputed and later revalidated by me and Dr. Andrew Holmes, confirming her age as “only” 109.

Louisa Thiers, born in Whitesboro, New York, in 1814 and the daughter of an American Revolutionary War veteran, became the first person to reach the age of 111. Like Boomgaard and Neve, Thiers was born into an affluent family. She was married and had five children. Thiers was also a fervent supporter of women’s emancipation. Louisa Thiers passed away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, at the age of 111 years and 138 days.

Louisa Thiers at age 105. Source: National Geographic Magazine

Thiers’ successor as the oldest living person would also become the next holder of the title as the world’s oldest person ever. Delina Filkins was born in Stark, New York, in 1815. In contrast to her successors, Filkins came from a humbler background, working at her family farm until marrying at a young age and continuing to farm with her husband in the same area. Filkins had six children. In remarkable health well into her centenarian years, she even underwent surgery for a hernia at the age of 107. As the first person to reach both ages 112 and 113, Delina Filkins was an extreme outlier of her time. She passed away in Richfield Springs, New York, at the age of 113 years and 214 days, and her record as the oldest person ever would stand for the next 54 years.

For several years, the person acknowledged to have succeeded Delina Filkins as the oldest person ever was Fannie Thomas, born in 1867 and passing away in 1981. She was exactly as old as she claimed, reaching 113 years and 273 days. In fact, the year 1980 saw three individuals surpassing Filkins’ mark. Anna Murphy claimed to have been born on 15 April 1867, nine days before Fannie Thomas, and died two days before Christmas in 1980 at the claimed age of 113 years and 252 days. However, her birth record contradicts this, supporting instead that she was born on 25 April 1867, making her one day younger than Thomas. Despite this, neither of these two women would hold the title of the oldest person ever. Still, at the time of their deaths, both were the oldest known individuals to have ever died.

Eliza Underwood at age 110. Source: Columbian-Progress
Eliza Underwood at age 110. Source: Columbian-Progress

Instead, Eliza Underwood, an African American woman born in Clinton, North Carolina, as a daughter to recently freed slaves, would be the next holder of the title. Underwood led a life of hard work, starting to work at the age of eight when she lived with and worked for a family of white neighbors. She married and had one daughter, adopting another, working in the fields and weaving cloth. Notably, she boarded a plane on her own at the age of 111 and flew to Washington, D.C., to reside with an adopted daughter. She later died here, just five days after Fannie Thomas, at the age of 113 years and 318 days. However, there is a reservation that Underwood might have been even older since most documentation from her early life supports a birth in 1865 or 1866.

While there have been two men acknowledged by certain organizations as the oldest person ever, Shigechiyo Izumi and Matthew Beard, both of their claims are considered disputed by LongeviQuest. Izumi is likely to have been around 105 at the time of his death, and Beard did likely not even reach centenarian status. This highlights the importance of high standards for accurate age validation.

At the age of 100. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Augusta Holtz at age 100. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The next person in line was another American, Augusta Holtz. Holtz was born in present-day Poland in 1871 and emigrated to the United States in 1873 with her family. Settling in Illinois, Holtz grew up on a farm. She later married a carpenter, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and had four children. Like the other individuals mentioned, Holtz enjoyed good health well into her centenarian years and only moved into a geriatric home at the age of 109. Augusta Holtz passed away in Florissant, Missouri, in 1986 at the age of 115 years and 79 days.

While Jeanne Calment is widely recognized as the current holder of the title as the oldest person ever, there is a possibility that she wasn’t the direct successor to Holtz. Support for Easter Wiggins of Rolling Fork, Mississippi has been growing in recent years. Wiggins claimed to have been born four months prior to Calment and died in 1990 at the alleged age of 116. However, her validation is not complete, so she will, for now, remain an addendum.

And finally, Jeanne Calment. Despite some attempts to cast doubt on her age in recent years, she remains one of the most thoroughly validated supercentenarians of all time. Calment was born in Arles, France, in 1875 and died in her hometown in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days, pushing the limit of the maximum known human lifespan by seven years. She came from a well-off family and never had to work, instead pursuing various hobbies. She married a double second cousin and had one daughter. Calment outlived both her daughter and her only grandchild. She moved into a nursing home when she was approaching 110 and remained in remarkably good health until she suffered a fall a month before her 115th birthday, after which her health very slowly deteriorated.

Will the age of Jeanne Calment be surpassed?

The individuals arguing that Jeanne Calment was actually her own daughter in disguise allege that reaching the age of 122 is statistically impossible (Zak & Gibbs, 2020). Others, including myself, argue that this isn’t the case, and it is rather a question of chance and an individual having the correct circumstances to allow them to live exceptionally long.

Given that supercentenarian one-year mortality might plateau at 50 percent, the chance that any supercentenarian would surpass the final age of Calment is approximately 1 in 10,000. This number might seem extreme but considering that each current birth cohort produces more than 150 to 200 verifiable supercentenarians, it won’t be unexpected if Calment’s age is surpassed by more than one person during this century. Still, no person out of the currently more than 2,500 LongeviQuest recognized deceased supercentenarians has even come close to surpassing Calment, with the second and third oldest individuals ever, Kane Tanaka and Sarah Knauss, both falling three years and two months short of Calment’s mark.

Scholars argue that there might exist an upper limit in lifespan, and serious medical and/or technological breakthroughs might be needed to exceed this theoretical limit (Blagosklonny, 2021; Gavrilova & Gavrilov, 2020). Considering that human knowledge and expertise are constantly increasing, it might be a given that the human lifespan will sooner or later be extendable.

Given these facts, the answer to the question of whether Jeanne Calment’s age will be surpassed is that yes, it is highly likely that her age will be surpassed this century.

Presented below is a table for how long each mentioned titleholder’s mark as the oldest person ever stood:

References

Antigny, A. (n.y.). André LEVESQUE de LA SOUCTIÈRE. Geneanet. https://gw.geneanet.org/aantigny?lang=en&pz=nathan+jean+denis&nz=antigny+mathieu&ocz=0&p=andre&n=levesque+de+la+souctiere

Blagosklonny M. V. (2021). No limit to maximal lifespan in humans: how to beat a 122-year-old record. Oncoscience, 8, 110–119. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncoscience.547

Chambre, D., Jeune, B., Poulain, M. (2021). Geert Adriaans Boomgaard, the First Supercentenarian in History?. In: Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J.W. (Eds). Exceptional Lifespans. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_15

Gavrilova, N. S., & Gavrilov, L. A. (2020). Are We Approaching a Biological Limit to Human Longevity?. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 75(6), 1061–1067. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glz164

Poulain, M., Chambre, D., Jeune, B. (2021). Margaret Ann Harvey Neve – 110 Years Old in 1903. The First Documented Female Supercentenarian. In: Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J.W. (Eds). Exceptional Lifespans. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_16

van Dijk, J. S. (2023, November 16-17). Hendrika Link – Scholte(n) (1686-1797). Earliest Supercentenarian Ever? [Poster Presentation]. 15th Supercentenarian Seminar, Paris, France.

Zak, N., & Gibbs, P. (2020). A Bayesian Assessment of the Longevity of Jeanne Calment. Rejuvenation Research, 23(1), 3-16. https://doi.org/10.1089/rej.2019.2227