Who is the Elephant Man?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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Joseph Merrick, who came to be known as the Elephant Man, was a severely deformed Englishman who attracted a great deal of attention in the Victorian Era, when he was a bit of a celebrity. The Elephant Man became a popular figure of pity and interest after being visited by prominent members of British society, including the Queen, and he was the subject of numerous pamphlets, books, and films. Thanks to his fame, Joseph Merrick's legacy endures in popular culture, with references to him sometimes popping up in historical novels and films set during his lifetime.

The Elephant Man was born in 1862 as a perfectly ordinary boy. However, at age three, he started to develop strange lumps and spots all over his body, and over time, his body gradually became severely deformed with overgrowths of bone, skin, and large tumors. Joseph Merrick was shunned by people in his community as a hideous monster, and he eventually struck out on his own, attempting to support himself by working as a sideshow attraction.

In 1886, however, sideshows were banned in Victorian England, and Merrick made his way to the Continent, hoping to find work there. However, he found himself exploited instead, so he returned to England, where he at least spoke the language. Upon his return, he reconnected with Frederick Treves, a physician whom he had met several years before, and Treves offered Merrick a place in the London Hospital in exchange for agreeing to be studied.


Joseph Merrick lived out his years in London Hospital, welcoming visitors from the upper ranks of British society along with doctors and biographers. He was described by contemporaries as a very sensitive, friendly man who was frustrated by his appearance, as one might well imagine. During his years at London Hospital, he was periodically taken out on various outings to experience the countryside, and he was said to be very fond of the fresh air and relative isolated of the countryside. In 1890, he died from complications related to his medical condition.

One of the more pressing mysteries about the Elephant Man is what medical condition he had. The Victorians believed that he was suffering from an extreme case of elephantiasis, a condition which affects lymphatic circulation. However, this did not explain the severe deformities in his skeleton, or the tumors which appeared all over his body. In the 1970s, medical researchers suggested that he might have suffered from neurofibramatosis, a type of genetic disorder. However, testing of his skeleton in 2003 revealed that the Elephant Man actually had Proteus Syndrome, a congenital condition which would have caused portions of his body to grow irregularly while also producing tumors.

At one time, Joseph Merrick's skeleton was on display at the London Hospital. It has since been removed from public display, out of respect for his remains, although researchers are allowed to access the skeleton for the purpose of study.


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