Of all the feats in the Guinness Book of World Records, being the "Oldest Living Person" is perhaps the most tantalizing and the most open to dispute.
Everyone, after all, is a potential contestant.
And nearly everyone, at some point, has yearned for the honor.
"No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity," the Guinness editors assert, noting hundreds of claims of people over 100 and some, "insulting to the intelligence," of people living into their third centuries.
Yet few claims are harder to prove than extreme longevity--after all, no one else who's alive today was alive when the oldest old were born.
That is true of Carrie White of Palatka, Fla., and Jackson Pollock of Milledgeville, Ga. The 1990 Guinness Book recognizes White as the oldest, at 115. But since that book went to press, Pollock has emerged with the claim that he is 123. Guinness is still awaiting proof.
The ages of these living ancients raise interesting questions.
How do we know they are the oldest? Do they give us the hope of immortality? A window into our past? Or are they like circus freaks, fascinating only because they are so different, so extreme?
Aside from the question of proof, longevity experts say the answers are all "Yes." Mainly, people like the idea of someone cheating death.
"Nobody wants to stare at death. It's one way to confront death--to consider not confronting it," said Dr. Richard Sprott, associate director for biomedical research and clinical medicine at the National Institute on Aging.
In Carrie White's case, there is fairly persuasive evidence she is 115; the search for Pollock's past is fascinating but as yet inconclusive.
White lives at the Putnam Memorial Nursing Home, where she likes to attend church and song sessions. She is in good health, although she doesn't seem to understand the fuss over her age and refuses to talk about her past.
Hers is not a happy story, from what little is known. She is said to have been born Nov. 18, 1874, in Gadsden County, Fla. As a young woman, she married John White, who was either a blacksmith or a farmer, and on the day after her 35th birthday, in 1909, he committed her to the Florida State Hospital for the mentally ill at Chattahoochee. Her diagnosis was "post-typhoid psychosis," and she remained there until she was, according to her records, 110.
White's claim to longevity rests mainly on her medical records, which are unusual because they span so much of her life. The only possibility for fraud would be if she or her husband had lied about her age when she was committed--a possibility, certainly, but one Guinness considers unlikely.
There is no similar documentation for Jackson Pollock's life. Pollock, a tall, gangly man with a taste for Prince Albert tobacco and soul food, says he was born Christmas Day in 1866, served in the Spanish-American War and World War I and loaded mail and checked railroad baggage in Cleveland and New York.
He has lived in the Central State Hospital in Milledgeville since 1972.
Alyce Friend of the Georgia Office of Aging has been preparing a report for Guinness. She has found tantalizing tidbits, but no proof.
The strongest documentation is Pollock's 1966 Social Security application, which lists his birth date Dec. 25, 1869--which would make him three years younger than his hospital records but still the world's oldest person.
But Social Security records can be based largely on the applicant's word, and are considered unreliable by longevity experts. So for now, Pollock's claim is based almost solely on his own account.
Friend, for one, believes him and calls him "an inspiration." She attributes his longevity to strong genes and self-satisfaction.
Guinness, for now, remains doubtful, said editor Donald McFarlan.
The book lists Shigechiyo Izumi of Japan as the person who lived to the oldest age ever documented--120 years, 237 days, based on census records.
But even that documentation isn't good enough for some scientists, who say it's just too unlikely that a human being could live that long.
"I don't know a single serious gerontologist in the world who believes these claims of people who are over 115," said Dr. Leonard Hayflick, professor of anatomy at the UC San Francisco.
From time to time, claims have surfaced of extraordinary groups of people who have lived well into their 130s, 140s, 150s and higher. One such group was said to live in the Caucasus Mountains of the Soviet Union; another in a remote area of Ecuador. In each case, experts say, the claims proved to be lies. The motives vary, but include draft dodging, national pride, tourism and simple boastfulness.
Scientists say it again and again: Humans just aren't built to last that long. And they dismiss the notion that the human life span is getting longer.
Life expectancy is another matter--it has risen dramatically since the turn of the century as nutrition and medical care have improved. But while more people are getting closer to the maximum possible life span, the span itself is unchanged, Hayflick said. "As far as we know, the human life span . . . has not changed in the past 100,000 years."
So we're left with the claims of Carrie White and Jackson Pollock, and the thought that more people in the future will live long beyond the biblical span of threescore years and 10--which after all is only 70.
"I think there will be a time when 100 years old will be very common," said Dr. Edward Schneider, dean of the Andrus Gerontology Research Center at USC. "I don't know about 110, but 100 will be common."
Beyond that, gerontologists say, what's the point? We all want eternal youth, but do we really want eternal age? The very old, the experts say, are rarely as interested in immortality as are younger people.
Florence Knapp of Philadelphia lived to 114 and was, for a time, considered the world's oldest person.
"I think she could never understand why she was allowed to live so long," her niece, Ruth Oberholtzer, said after her death. "One time she said that she feels like she might have been bad and this was God's way of punishing her."