"Elephant Man" case presented: March 17, 1885
The strange case of a young Londoner who has become known as the "Elephant Man" is presented to the Pathological Society of London by a surgeon named Dr. Frederick Treves. The doctor is searching for answers, so he describes in detail the horrific condition of his patient, whose real name is Joseph Carey Merrick. The man's head is covered by flaps of spongy skin and swollen to a circumference of three feet, his right wrist is more than a foot around, his skin pockmarked with warty growths and his jaw is so deformed that his speech is unintelligible. But no one can provide an explanation. Merrick himself believes what his parents had always told him--that his mother had been badly frightened by a fairground elephant when she was pregnant with him.
Merrick had left home at the age of 17 after his father beat him because he was unable to earn money selling items door-to-door. Eventually, he had turned to putting himself on display as "Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant." The shop where he had been exhibited was across the street from the London Hospital, which is how Treves had come to know him and become intrigued by his condition.
The following year, in 1886, a tour through Europe ends badly for Merrick when his road manager robs and abandons him in Brussels. Somehow, even though no one can understand his speech, he makes his way back to London. Police there aren't sure what to do with him until they find Dr. Treves' card in his possession and so they take him to London Hospital. The hospital arranges for Merrick to live there in a specially designed room that, on Dr. Treves' orders, does not include a mirror. Merrick becomes a bit of a celebrity in London's high society and even the then Princess of Wales pays him a visit.
But Merrick lives only four more years. On an April afternoon in 1890, he is found dead in his bed. He is only 27 years old. The official cause of death is asphyxia, apparently caused by the weight of his head as he tried to lay down. Merrick had always slept sitting up for that reason, but had told Dr. Treves numerous times that he wanted to sleep "like other people." The doctor surmised that that's ultimately what killed him.
Merrick's tragic story was revived by the play "The Elephant Man," which made its debut on Broadway in 1979. Among those who played the role of Joseph Merrick are Bruce Davison, David Bowie and Mark Hamill. A movie by the same name and directed by David Lynch opened a year later.
A few after that, in 1986, scientists diagnosed Merrick's condition as an extremely rare genetic condition known as Proteus syndrome. And more recently, in 2011, other researchers found that it was the result of a single mutation of a single gene, a one in a billion chance.
More slices of history