The Elephant Man: Old Curiosity and New Medical Research

The Elephant Man was an object of terror, curiosity and sympathy throughout his life. He was studied by Victorian medical specialists, and was an object of wonder for the general public in this era. He was well known throughout London after he began living at the London Hospital. Since his death, he has continued to  to be an object of awe at the Royal London Hospital as part of their private museum. His legacy has continued with several works of non-fiction and fiction including Anthropologist’s Ashley Montagu’s “Elephant Man: A study in dignity”, a Tony award winning play with his name and its film adaptation that was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, and an archival account of his life by Michael Howell and Peter Ford titled “The True History of the Elephant Man”.

Now, 123 years after his death in 1890, Joseph Merrick’s remained have caused renewed interest and could be of great benefit to modern science.

Joseph Merrick in 1889, via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Merrick in 1889, via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Merrick was born August 5, 1862 in Leicester, England. Beginning at an early age, his skin became lumpy and thickened, with enlargement of the lips and a bony proturberance on his forehead. Soon later his arms and feet became enlarged as well, and a hip injury caused him a permanent lameness. Following the death of his mother and remarriage of his father, at age 17, Joseph entered the Leicester Union Workhouse. Four years later, Merrick contacted Sam Torr, a showman for a touring circus, and suggested he should be shown as a freak show act. Torr agreed, and Merrick official became the ‘Elephant Man’. After a tour of the East Midlands, Merrick joined a new show in Whitechapel across from the London Hospital. A surgeon from the hospital invited Merrick to be examined and photographed- the surgeon was named Frederick Treves and would later be instrumental in Merrick’s life (and afterlife).

Merrick was next sent into Europe for a traveling show, but was robbed and abandoned in Brussels by his own road manager. He was able to make his way back to London, but had lost the ability to communicate. The police found the information for Frederick Treves on Merrick’s person, and brought Merrick to the London Hospital. It was determined his condition was incurable and untreatable. Despite this, Merrick was allowed to live at the hospital until his death. Treves visited him daily, and the two developed a close friendship that is later the topic of anthropological and archival research mentioned above. Merrick also received visits from wealthy individuals of London society, and even the Princess of Wales visited him. Merrick died on April 11, 1890, at age 27. The official cause of death was asphyxia, however Treves’ dissection of the remains found that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck. He believed that Merrick. The theory was that Merrick who was forced to sleep sitting up due to the weight of his head had been attempting to sleep lying down and caused his own death. Following this, Merrick’s remains were cleaned, skin samples were preserved, and his skeleton and some personal belongings are now on display in a private collection at the Hospital.

The skeletal remains have clear patterns of pathology. His skull has large growths of bone on the right side and frontal bone. His right upper limb is far larger than the left, the spine is badly curved, and the right femur is much larger as well. There are a number of theories as to what disease Merrick had and why it appeared in such a way. The primary diagnoses include: Neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic condition affecting one in 3,000 which causes tumors to grow along nervous system and can manifest in a range of symptoms; or Proteus Syndrome, a rare condition causing overgrowth of bones, tissue and organs. Doctors also argue it could be a combination of the two. It is thought that whatever happened to Merrick probably occurred within the womb, and was a genetic alteration.

Skeleton of Merrick, via Queen Mary University of London and BBC News

Skeleton of Merrick, via Queen Mary University of London and BBC News

The renewed interest in the remains is a hope that this will help us better understand modern conditions of similar etiology. However, there a major problem- the remains are extremely well cleaned. This means that they are unable to extract any DNA samples due to the bleach cleaning over the years. Bleach cleaning is a way to remove DNA on surfaces, so it is the worst possible thing to clean bones with. Despite this, geneticists from Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London, and the Natural History Museum However, modern scientists are attempting anyway to find and analyze the DNA of this disease. The goal will be to compare DNA in the parts of bone that were deformed against bone that is not within Merrick’s skeleton.

While the case is of extreme intellectual curiousity, researchers believe that this could also help modern medicine. It is argued that analyzing tissue with such overgrowth could result in a better understanding of tumor development in general. Merrick himself wanted to help with medicine- and he continues to do so.

I end this with how Merrick ended his letters, a poem from Isaac Watts:

Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLegendre CM, Charpentier-Côté C, Drouin R, & Bouffard C (2011). Neurofibromatosis type 1 and the “elephant man’s” disease: the confusion persists: an ethnographic study. PloS one, 6 (2) PMID: 21347399

Tibbles and Cohen, 1986. Proteus Syndrome: Elephant Man diagnosed. British Medical Journal. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1341524/

Wikipedia 2013. Joseph Merrick: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick

Bomford, Andrew 2013 Unlocking the secrets of the Elephant Man. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23863974

4 responses to “The Elephant Man: Old Curiosity and New Medical Research

  1. Great post, I’ve always been fascinated by Joseph Merrick myself! As you point out, the Royal London Hospital Museum has a small but nice collection on Merrick, including his aforementioned skeleton (though I believe the one on display is a replica), his hooded hat, a signed photograph, and a church he built out of cards, amongst other treasures. It’s free, and well worth checking out if you’re near Whitechapel on a weekday; I posted about it last month, in case anyone’s interested! 🙂 http://divertingjourneys.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/london-royal-london-hospital-museum/

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