"Elephant Man" 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 ended badly for Merrick when his road manager robbed and abandoned him in Brussels. Somehow, even though no one could understand his speech, he made his way back to London. Police there weren't sure what to do with him until they found Dr. Treves' card in his possession. They contacted the doctor and he came and retrieved Merrick, taking him back to London Hospital. Treves arranged for Merrick to live there in a specially designed room that, on the doctor's orders, does not include a mirror.  And Merrick actually became a bit of a celebrity in London's high society--even the then Princess of Wales paid him a visit.

But Merrick lived only four more years. On an April afternoon in 1890, he was found dead in his bed.  He was only 27 years old. The official cause of death was 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 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 were Bruce Davison, David Bowie and Mark Hamill.  A movie by the same name and directed by David Lynch opened a year later.

A few years after that, in 1986, scientists diagnosed Merrick's condition as an extremely rare genetic condition known as Proteus syndrome, which results in the asymmetrical growth of body parts.  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

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Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899

DNA discovered: Feb. 28, 1953

Alka Seltzer is born: Feb. 21, 1931

First penicillin shot: Feb. 12, 1941