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The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, and His Very Rare Disease

We can learn so much from history, especially in the medical field with advances and discoveries in medicine.

Joseph Merrick 1862-1890

Joseph Merrick 1862-1890

Joseph Merrick 1889 One Year Before He Died

Joseph Merrick 1889 One Year Before He Died

Early Life of Joseph Carey Merrick

Joseph Carey Marrick was born 5th of August 1862 in Leicester, the U.K., to Joseph and Mary Jane Merrick. He was born with no outward signs of any problems, but he started to develop a long bump on his forehead and a difference between his right and left arms and hands, and both feet. However, his mother wanted him to have an everyday life and taught him to read and write as he attended school.

Mary told him how she had been knocked down and frightened by an elephant while pregnant with him. It was not unusual that Britains believed in maternal impression, so she thought it possible that he had unusual growths. At some point in his young life, he had fallen, injuring his hip resulting in an infection, leaving him lame the rest of his life.

In 1873 when Joseph was eleven, his mother died of pneumonia. He later referred to this as "the greatest sadness of his life." His father remarried to a widow, and Joseph would remember this time of home life as "perfect misery." Both his father and stepmother disowned him, and he never recalled any affection from either of them.

By the time he was thirteen, he had left school and found work in a cigar factory. Unfortunately, his right hand was grossly out of proportion, and his lack of agility forced him to leave the job. And he frightened so many he couldn't work at hawking. Having no alternative, he entered the Leicester Workhouse along with 1100 others.

Merrick Hawking To Survive

Merrick Hawking To Survive

Leicester Workhouse

Leicester Workhouse

Joseph Decides To Use his Deformity And Be Exhibited

It seems Joseph was aware that he could earn money by working in a sideshow. He contacted Sam Torr, who ran a sideshow and worked for him. It was about this time sideshows were losing their popularity. Merrick's managers decided to travel to Belgium. Fate handed Joseph another blow as his road managers stole all his money and deserted him with no funds to travel back to London. Joseph finally found his way back and hooked up with Tom Norman, a little shop across from the Royal London Hospital.

Joseph was a proud man and determined not to be a burden. But, It had to be a lonely, difficult life for him, weighing deeply on his need to survive and allowing himself to be ridiculed and gawked at.

Royal London Hospital

Royal London Hospital

Joseph Meets Dr. Frederick Reeves

One day, Dr. Frederck Reeves, a surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, asked if Joseph would be willing to come to the hospital. By now, Joseph could not converse, and no one understood what he was saying. Dr. Reeves took measurements of Joseph and noted his head measured 36", and his right hand measured 12" at the wrist. It was apparent Joseph needed a place to stay, and the chairman of the hospital, Char Gromm, appealed to the public for donations for Joseph's support. The hospital received overwhelming contributions to provide for Joseph's support.

He was moved to two rooms remolded to accommodate a small garden outside his room. Dr. Reeves visited every day and slowly began to understand him realizing he was knowledgeable. Joseph spent his days reading and crafting card buildings. The model he crafted of the Dom Mainz Church, Germany, is displayed at the Royal London Hospital.

At one point, Princess Alexandra of Wales was visiting the hospital and requested to see Joseph. She entered his room, shook hands with him, and made friends. He was so stricken with the emotion of human compassion, and a bond began with the Princess. She would send Christmas cards to him each year and small gifts occasionally.

Joseph could only sleep sitting up with his head on his knees. When he died in 1890, he was only 27 years old. Dr. Reeves found him lying down, sleeping in his bed. This was somewhat unusual as Joseph knew it would be risking his life by lying down. Did he do this purposely or by accident? One can understand if he lay down by choice, simply trying to be normal.

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Even though his life was never easy, Joseph had patience and tolerance of the cruelty of others yet stayed humble.

The Dom Mainz Church, Germany By Joseph Merrick

The Dom Mainz Church, Germany By Joseph Merrick

Princess Alexandra

Princess Alexandra

What Is Proteus Syndrome

Proteus Syndrom is so rare that it affects only one in one million worldwide. Canadian-based geneticist Michael Cohen, Jr., DMD, PH.D. First discovered the gene AKT1 in 1979, and then in 1983, German pediatric doctor Rudolph Wiedmann gave it a name and called it Proteus Syndrome.


The gene AKT1 is a gene that makes a protein that acts like a switch that controls cell growth. It is asymmetric and affects right and left sides differently. There is no cure for Proteus Syndrome, and life expectancy is nine months to twenty-nine years. There is ongoing research by Brian Schwartz, chief medical officer at ArQue Company. Also, a cancer drug is showing promise as a treatment option.


Proteus Syndrom

Proteus Syndrom

The Graves of Joseph And His Mother

Merrick's mother, Mary, is buried in Welford Cemetery, Leicester, and a plaque was finally placed to honor her. Joseph's grave has finally been found by author Joanne Vigor-Mungovin while researching for her book, The Life, Times, And Places of the Elephant Man. His remains are in a mass grave in the London Cemetery, England.

The skeleton of Joseph Merrick is under lock and key at the Royal London Hospital. Attempts were made to gain his DNA from the bones, but it was unsuccessful because they had been bleached so many times.

Plans are being discussed to remodel the two rooms. Joseph had at the hospital to become a prayer room.


the-story-of-the-elephant-man-joseph-merrick
Skeleton of Joseph Merrick

Skeleton of Joseph Merrick

Sources Used

https://raredisease.org

https://genome.gov/news-release

https://proteus-syndrome.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph-Merrick

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