The broad details of the life of Joseph Merrick – the Londoner who became known as The Elephant Man during the late 19th century, and was the subject of a Bernard Pomerance play and a David Lynch film a century later – are well known.
© Barts NHS Trust archives
For the first time, though, the public will be able to find out more by meeting an exact replica of his skeleton, made from digital 3D scans of his “fragile” remains, at the Royal London Museum from today (July 3 2012).
Using bones kept for research by the medical school at the Royal London Hospital where Merrick was treated at the end of his life, curators have reconstructed Merrick's frame within an existing display about him, adding a visual centrepiece to a new investigation into his DNA which has led scientists to re-appraise his condition.
© Gary Schwarz
Backed by recent research in the US, they now believe he suffered from an “exceptionally rare” disorder known as Proteus syndrome.
“During Joseph Merrick’s life, little was understood about his condition and how he could be helped,” says Professor Richard Trembath, the Vice Principal for Health at Queen Mary, University of London.
“Current research on the genetic causes of disease mean we can now understand and ultimately treat those living with rare diseases.
"We hope those who come to visit the museum will see the replica skeleton and gain some understanding of how hard it must have been for Joseph Merrick to walk, talk and lead a normal life.”
Trembath and his team will collaborate with their peers from the American National Institutes of Health to carry out further tests on the DNA, held in private pathology collections at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
In advance of their more definitive new conclusions, the museum’s exhibition provides a chance to see Merrick’s hat, mask and an intricate paper model of a church which he crafted during his time at the hospital. It also features a series of photographs.
- Open Tuesday-Friday 10am-4.30pm. Admission free (donations welcome). Hear more about the exhibition with museum curator Jonathan Evans (mp3 download), or listen to further podcasts, including the history of the medical school.