Joseph Merrick


August 13, 2022

Joseph Carey Merrick (Leicester, England, August 5, 1862 - London, April 11, 1890) was popularly known as "the elephant man" because of the severe malformations he suffered from the age of 18 months age His parents did not suffer from any kind of malformation and neither did his two siblings, William (died at the age of four) and Marion Eliza. Nor was there any case like his in his uncles or cousins. Doctors specializing in congenital diseases and geneticists have been able to find out what kind of disease Joseph Merrick suffered from, thanks to the fact that his skeleton and organic samples (hair) were preserved. It is a disease called Proteus syndrome, which was discovered in 1979. This syndrome is very rare and only 100 cases have been described worldwide. It is also suspected that Merrick also suffered from neurofibromatosis type I, as he also has clear symptoms of this disease.


Joseph Merrick grew up in the city of Leicester. His disease began to manifest in his deforming appearance around 18 months of age in the form of a bump on the upper lip. At the age of twelve, his mother died who had always looked after him with devotion. Merrick despite his illness that made it difficult for him to walk, went to school from 6 to 12 years old. After the death of his mother his father remarried and his father's new partner did not accept Merrick. Joseph worked from age 13 to 15 in a tobacco factory until his right hand and arm were so deformed that he was unable to work using both arms. Such was the impediment, that Merrick being right-handed had to learn to write again with his left hand. After losing his job his father got him a license to be a traveling salesman. Merrick was selling some items from his father's haberdashery on the streets. Because of his appearance, he sold almost nothing and people often made fun of him or scolded him. During this time, Merrick ran away from home a handful of times to escape his stepmother's abuse and his father's neglect of him. One day he left forever after being beaten and his father never cared about him again. Merrick totally lost contact with him and with his younger sister, Marion Eliza who was about six years old in those days. His paternal uncle Charles Merrick took him into his home for a year. During this year Merrick continued to work as a traveling salesman but his already very deformed appearance scared people and caused him not to sell anything. The peddlers' guild protested Merrick's presence and when his license to sell expired, it was not renewed. He remained under the protection of his uncle, but knowing that he could not earn a living he did not want to be a burden to his uncle and at the end of December 1879, at the age of 17 he voluntarily entered the WorkHouse in Leicester. The WorkHouses were a network of asylums spread throughout the United Kingdom where people without resources, even entire families, went to stay. There, with a prison regime, they worked to earn their stay. The most common jobs were working with stones to make streets, making bricks, etc. Merrick always remembered his stay at the WorkHouse with horror. He stayed there for four years. His deformity continued to progress. The protrusion of the upper lip reached a point where it prevented him from eating and speaking clearly. In 1884 he was transferred to the Leicester Infirmary where he operated on his face removing the bulge. According to Merrick's own words, half a kilo of diseased tissue was removed. While recovering from the painful operation he learned that a freak fair promoter named Sam Torr was in town and wrote to him asking for a job. Torr went to see him and he went