‘Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick Born 150 Years Ago

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Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester, England, Aug. 5, 1862. The baby was born with disabilities. As Merrick grew older, congenital skin and bone deformities became more pronounced. Merrick's nickname was "The Elephant Man" in traveling sideshows throughout Europe. Merrick's famous nickname lives on today in modern culture.

How did Merrick get "The Elephant Man" nickname?

Merrick worked at the Leicester Union Workhouse for four years. He hated the work and ran away at age 21 and joined a sideshow of human oddities. Merrick was billed as "Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant." Eventually, The Elephant Man was on display in a shop along Whitechapel Road across from the London Hospital in 1884, according to the National Institutes of Health.

What caused Merrick's deformities?

Medical science was unable to determine what exactly afflicted Merrick . The Information Please Online Almanac states abnormal masses of flesh began growing on his body as a child. Eventually, the entire right side of his body was completely enlarged. The diagnosis of elephantiasis was ruled out. More modern studies theorize the cause could have been a rare disorder called Proteus Syndrome.

What did The Elephant Man look like?

There are black and white photos of Merrick and a good summary of what the man was like on DoctorSecrets.com. The right hand was deformed with a large growth protruding where a pinky finger should normally be. The right side of the skull was misshapen. Ribs were off-center due to the curvature of Merrick's spine.

Did the deformities lead to Merrick's death?

The Royal London Museum states the official cause of death was asphyxiation. Because Merrick's head was so large, he had to sleep with his head between his knees. The man lived to just 27 years old. The last four years of Merrick's life was spent in The London Hospital. One of Merrick's dying wishes was to sleep "like other people."

What happened to Merrick's bones?

Michael Jackson tried to purchase the bones in 1987, according to People Magazine. Jackson offered $1 million for the oddity but was refused. The Discovery Channel embarked on a project to take DNA samples from the skeleton to determine what caused a normal boy to become The Elephant Man. A documentary film was produced in 2003 at the Royal London Hospital where the remains are kept.

What pop culture references describe Merrick's life?

A movie made in 1980 starred John Hurt as the titular Elephant Man . A Broadway play was also producted, according to the New York Times. The play has been revived just in time for the 150th anniversary of Merrick's birth. This time, the lead role goes to comedic actor Bradley Cooper.

William Browning is a research librarian.

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