Replica skeleton of Elephant Man Merrick on show at Royal London

07:00 03 July 2012

Replica of Merrick

Replica of Merrick's deformed skeleton

Barts+RLH NHS Trust

An exact replica of the Elephant Man’s skeleton is going on public show this-morning for the first time in 112 years since Joseph Merrick’s death.

The skeleton created from digital 3D scans of his fragile remains is on display at the Royal London Hospital’s museum from 10am.

Scientists are planning to extract and test DNA from Merrick’s bones which are held in the private pathology collection nearby at the London School of Medicine in Whitechapel.

Merrick, who died in 1890 at the age of 27, was cared for until the end of his life at The London Hospital by surgeon Frederick Treves. His bones were later kept at the medical school in the hope that one day they might help research.

The new replica is part of an exhibition about Merrick which includes his hat and mask, photographs and an intricate paper model of a church he made while living at the hospital.

It reflects the remarkable life that Merrick led, despite his disabilities and lack of treatment available at the time.

Experts now suspect Merrick’s disorder was Proteus syndrome, a rare medical problem that causes bones, skin and other tissue to grow excessively in parts of the body, causing severe disfigurement.

American researchers have since identified a genetic cause of Proteus.

Now researchers at the medical school, part of the University of London’s Queen Mary College, hope to confirm finally that Merrick’s condition was Proteus syndrome and are working with the US National Institutes of Health to test DNA extracted from his delicate remains.

Prof Richard Trembath, Vice Principal for Health at Queen Mary’s, said: “Little was understood during Merrick’s life about his condition. But current genetic research means we can now ultimately treat those living with rare diseases.”

Merrick died from what was thought to be a dislocated neck. He had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head—but had been trying to sleep lying down “to be like other people.”

His story was the subject of the 1979 film The Elephant Man, with John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as surgeon Treves.

The Royal London Hospital Museum opens Tuesday to Friday 10am to 4.30pm.



1862: Born August 5, Leicester

1867: Develops “thick lumpy skin like an elephant, almost same colour”

1873: Disabled mother Mary Jane, Sunday school teacher, dies, father remarries

1876: Leaves school at 13, finds work rolling cigars

1879: Right hand deformity worsens and no longer has dexterity for work, enters Leicester Union workhouse at 17

1884: Contacts showman Sam Torr, who agrees to put him in freak show and names him Elephant Man. Later travels to London, exhibited in Tom Norman’s penny gaff shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, opposite London Hospital, visited by surgeon Frederick Traves and agrees to be examined and photographed

1885: Freak show closed by police—goes on the road with Sam Roper’s travelling fair, but gets negative attention from local authorities and is sent on tour on Continent, robbed by minder in Brussels and left abandoned

1886: Eventually makes way back on ferry to Ipswich, arrives by train at Liverpool Street June 24, destitute, found by police with Surgeon Treves’ card on him. Treves arrives, takes him back to the London Hospital, allowed to stay for remainder of his life

1887: Two new hospital buildings opened May 21 by Prince and Princess of Wales, meets Princess Alexandra

1890: Dies April 11 at 3pm, inquest April 15 held by Wynne Baxter

1979: Debut of Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man

1980: David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man stars John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Surgeon Treves

1986: New theory that Merrick had Proteus syndrome


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