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The Elephant Man

JOSEPH MERRICK, dubbed "The Elephant Man", is one of the most famous patients in history, not just on account of his frightful appearance while he was alive, but also because of the division of opinion amongst the medical establishment after his death over just what disease he had suffered from.

Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man
Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

Mr. Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, was born on August 5th 1862 - a year after the start of American Civil War - in Leicestershire, Great Britain. His mother was slightly crippled but his brother, was normal. Joseph Merrick's development was normal until age two when small growths began to be noticed on his face, the first signs of a frightful disorder which would transform him into the "Elephant Man".

By the age of seventeen Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, joined the British labor force working in a menial capacity at a workhouse and left it at twenty-one for greater opportunity with freak shows in 1883. It was here that show promoters dubbed him the "Elephant Man" and created fantastic stories of his origins to attract the public. Three years later in 1886 Joseph Merrick was discovered by doctor Sir Frederick Treves, and through him, eventually gave up life as a sideshow.

Dr. Treves
dr. frederick treves picture

Mr. Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, was admitted and lived at the Royal London Hospital where he died at twenty-seven during sleep either by dislocation of his cervical spine from the weight of his head, or from obstructive sleep apnea - he was known to sleep sitting upright to avoid suffocation.

Mr. Merrick's head measured 36 inches - roughly one-third larger than an average human's and a great deal additional weight for his body to support, possibly interfering in his balance and ability to sit or stand for periods without resting his neck.

The Elephant Man Rear Photo
elephant man head rear

Joseph Merrick's - The Elephant Man - deformity favored the right side of his body e.g. enlarging his right hand to a flipper like state. We do not have access to audio recordings of him speaking but it is reasonable from looking at photographs to believe that he must have spoken with a severe dysarthritic splutter.

The Elephant Man Skull Front The Elephant Man Skull Right Side
elephant man skull front
elephant man skull side

Internal structures of Mr. Merrick's - The Elephant Man - were no less spared. Toward the end of his life severe arthritis forced him to limp and use a walking stick . In addition, the scoliosis (curvature) of his spine revealed in surviving photographs probably would have reduced his lung capacity predisposing him to shortness of breath and chest infections.

The Elephant Man Bones and Body
elephant man skeleton
Elephant Man Bones Movie



The psychological cost to Mr. Joseph Merrick - The Elephant Man - of his disease are not hard to imagine in a society less educated and tolerant than today. Study of his surviving writings prove him to have been of at least normal intelligence and able to appreciate the horror of his condition.

Joseph's Merrick's Handwriting
elephant man handwriting

"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."

- Joseph Merrick.

There is a divide amongst Joseph Merrick medical authorities as to just what disease he had actually suffered from. An early theory was that Joseph Merrick had elephantiasis - a disease of blocked sewage vessels in the body - lymphatics - that leads to tissue swelling, but this is not currently in favor. Neurofibromatosis had been a very strong contender for a number of decades until 1976 when a very rare condition called Proteus syndrome was forwarded. Proteus is so rare that less than one hundred cases to date have ever been documented, but it agrees with the 'fossil' evidence left by Mr. Joseph Merrick. It describes overgrowth of soft tissues and bone, sometimes only on one side of the body (hemihypertrophy). Classical neurofibromatosis on the other hand, is a tumorous growth of nerve schwann sheaths (insulated covering like that around copper wiring), and does not readily lend itself to explain Joseph Merrick's bones i.e. The Elephant Man Bones.

The Royal London Hospital which used to keep Mr. Joseph Merrick's bones (these have since been buried), had allowed medical sleuths in the past, to take casts, photographs, caliper measurements, and X-rays of The Elephant Man's Bones. We may never conclusively know what he suffered from since efforts in years past to preserve his bones for us, may have irreparably damaged any DNA that forensic scientists could have used for incontrovertible proof. Indeed, some claim that perhaps Joseph Merrick had a unique disease... 'Merrick's Disease'.

The Elephant Man Drawing by NachoMG

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Last Updated:
June 07 2014
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