Wednesday 23 August 2017

Obituary: Emma Morano

The last surviving person born in the 19th Century put her longevity down to eating raw eggs and avoiding men

RECORD: Emma Morano aged 117. Photo: Wikimedia
RECORD: Emma Morano aged 117. Photo: Wikimedia

​Emma Morano, the Italian supercentenarian, who has died aged 117, was believed to have been the last surviving person born in the 19th century; the secret to her longevity, she said, was eating three eggs a day, two of them raw, and avoiding men.

When she was born, the kingdom of Italy had been a united nation for less than 40 years and Umberto I was on the throne. She lived through industrialisation, two world wars and the declaration of the republic in 1946, seeing off both fascism ("I remember it because they kept doing parades, processions") and Silvio Berlusconi.

For the first 110 years or so of her life, the world paid little attention to the school dinner lady from the north of Italy, but once she entered her 12th decade, Emma Morano became the subject of scientific interest and journalistic fascination. Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston visited her in 2011 in a quest to discover the elixir of long life, while the director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California suggested that diet, genetics or a combination of the two were responsible for her longevity.

Shortly after her 115th birthday an interviewer from the New York Times tried to tease out her memories of the momentous events of her lifetime and her recollections of past political figures. But Emma Morano, trussed up in hand-knitted shawls next to a radiator, simply shrugged indifferently, preferring instead to recall family details.

In December 2011, Emma Morano was appointed Knight of the Order of Merit by President Napolitano of Italy. Pope Francis - the 11th pope of her lifetime - gave her his blessing on her 116th birthday.

Emma Martina Luigia Morano was born in Civiasco, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, on November 29, 1899, the eldest of five daughters and three sons of Giovani Morano and his wife Matilde Bresciani. That year, Guglielmo Marconi made the first transmission of a radio signal across the English Channel; a group of investors formed Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Fiat) and Giacomo Puccini was working on his opera Tosca.

RECORD: Emma Morano in 1930. Photo: Wikimedia
RECORD: Emma Morano in 1930. Photo: Wikimedia

"My sisters and I loved to dance and we'd run away to the dance hall and then our mother would come looking for us with a birch stick," she told the New York Times when asked about her childhood. Longevity was in the family, with one of her sisters living to 99 and another to 102.

The family moved north to Villadossola, then a major iron and steel centre, for her father's work. But the climate did not suit her, so she moved to Verbania on the shores of Lake Maggiore. "The doctor told me to change air," she said in 2015, "and I'm still here."

At 13, she found a job with Maioni, a factory making jute bags for potatoes.

When that became too onerous, she worked in the kitchen of Collegio Santa Maria, a boarding school in Pallanza, until her retirement in 1974. Music was her passion. "I liked to sing and when people used to pass beneath my window, they would stop to hear me. I had a nice voice," she said.

When, at the age of 20, she was diagnosed with anaemia, a doctor advised that a diet of raw eggs would be good for her. If she followed his instructions, Emma Morano would have eaten some 105,000 eggs by her 116th birthday.

On May 13, 2016, after the death of Susannah Mushatt Jones in the US, Emma Morano became officially the world's oldest living person and the last living person to have been born in the 1800s.

She was also the second-oldest recorded European, behind Jeanne Calment from France who died in 1997, aged 122 years and 164 days.

Emma Morano had lived in the same small, two-room apartment since 1926, with her collection of watches and her big bed. Visitors were offered gianduiotto, a chocolate speciality from her home town, and a glass of wine. She enjoyed a brandy that she prepared herself. "I put it in a jar with seven sage leaves, a sprig of herbs and some grapes," she said. "Then I drink it with a spoon."

In later years, Carlo Bava, her doctor, called by once a month to check that all was well. "If all my patients were like this, I could have spent my days reading newspapers," he said.

The local mayor gave her a television, but she preferred to watch films rather than the news, which she complained was read too fast.

The love of her life, a man named Augusto, had been called up for service in World War I and sent to the front, but never returned. "I got letters from him. They spoke of love. And of war. Then they stopped coming," she recalled.

A neighbour, Giovanni Martinuzzi, told her: "If you're lucky you'll marry me, or I'll kill you." With little say in the matter she married him in 1926. He turned violent and she threw him out in 1938, although the marriage was never dissolved (divorce only became legal in Italy in 1970).

Martinuzzi died in 1978, but Emma Morano never stopped wearing her wedding ring.

She had many prospective suitors, including the factory manager ("It was not easy in those days for a worker to say no to the director," she recalled), but she remained alone. "I didn't want to be dominated by anyone," she said.

Her son, who was born in 1937, died at even months.

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