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Best Wishes As World’s Oldest Person Turns 120

February 21, 1995

ARLES, France (AP) _ The photographers jostled as though a Hollywood movie star were in the room. But they were taking aim at Jeanne Calment, unruffled by all the hoopla as she turned 120 _ the oldest person in the world.

``Why all the applause?″ asked Mrs. Calment, hard of hearing but able to detect the rousing ovation from the 300 guests at her nursing home.

There were children in folk costumes singing ``Happy Birthday,″ thousands of cards from around the world, an enormous chocolate cake and a brief speech by the French health minster, who gave her a cicada-shaped brooch.

Mrs. Calment took it all calmly, watching from an armchair in a new black-and-white outfit and new hairdo. Bouquets of roses covered the carpet in front of her.

Nearly blind, Mrs. Calment has been living since 1985 at a nursing home that has been renamed after her. She has used a wheelchair since fracturing her leg and elbow in a fall in 1990.

The Guinness Book of Records lists her as the oldest person in the world whose age can be authenticated. In seven months, 22 days, she would surpass Shigechiyo Izumi _ a Japanese man who died in 1986 _ as the oldest person of all time with a verifiable birth date.

Mrs. Calment has been the oldest person since 1991, with the death of a 116-year-old American, Carry White.

Mrs. Calment still lives in the southern city of Arles, where she was born in 1875. She outlasted her husband, brother, a daughter who died of pleurisy and a grandson who died in a car crash _ so she has no direct descendants.

But she has memories: traveling to Paris when the Eiffel Tower was still under construction, selling colored pencils to Vincent Van Gogh when he lived in Arles. She never had a profession, but dabbled in painting and piano.

She was born just four years after France lost the Franco-Prussian War, and was nearly 40 when French troops again fought the Germans in World War I.

``How are you doing?″ asked Health Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.

``Everything’s fine,″ replied Mrs. Calment.

Journalists from as far away as Japan and Argentina have been flocking to see her for a week. At least five books about her or centenarians have been published in conjunction with the birthday.

``She’s an exceptional case,″ said Jean-Marc Robine, a longevity expert with the National Institute of Medical Research. ``By chance, she was endowed with an extraordinary genetic makeup.″

He said research into her ancestors determined that an usually high proportion of them lived far longer than the norm for their eras, including many in the 17th and 18th centuries who lived into their 70s. Her father died at 94 and her mother at 86.

Robine, who visits Mrs. Calment regularly, remarked on her ``extraordinary resistance to sickness, stress and depression.″

``There’s nothing exceptional about her lifestyle,″ he said. ``She’s not athletic, not a health fanatic _ she says she’s interested in everything but not really passionate about anything.″

Mrs. Calment has been forced to give up her two cigarettes a day and her single glass of port before meals, but she still nibbles on chocolate.

Her birthday has prompted numerous article about the fast-rising number of centenarians in France _ 261 in 1945, about 5,000 now.

Demographers said the centenarians’ life expectancy is two years. More than 80 percent of them are women; half live at home, half in institutions.

Demographers at the University of California at Berkeley threw a party in honor of Mrs. Calment.

``This is an historic occasion. It’s the first time someone has attained such a great age _ at least someone we can authenticate,″ said John Wilmoth of the Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging.

Wilmoth, assistant professor of demography, said centenarians used to be rare, but now there are more than 20,000 in the United States.

``I don’t think we can live forever, but we haven’t yet been able to find a fixed limit for the human life span,″ he said.

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