Joseph Merrick, born in 1860, spent most of his life traveling as a freak show. His skeleton was twisted and had bony lumps, and he had abnormal growths on his skin as well. Modern medicine now believes he suffered from Proteus syndrome, a very rare condition. New research has shown that Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man, did not die of suffocation as was previously believed, but due to the weight of his huge head crushing his spinal cord.
While traveling with the freak show managers, Merrick had one piece of good luck that would change his life later on. It was to make the acquaintance of Dr. Treves of the London Hospital. Merrick was being exhibited in a shop just opposite the hospital and Dr. Treves gave him his card. When Merrick found himself robbed and destitute on his return from a tour in France, he went to Dr. Treves. The hospital gave him two rooms to live in and he no longer had to be exhibited or be the subject of stares all day. He was a gentle soul, excited to have visitors, and on his three trips to the country loved to gather wildflowers and take walks in the woods.
Joseph Merrick’s head was so huge that he could not sleep lying down due to the risk of suffocation, and on his death Dr. Treves assumed he had tried to sleep “normally” and it resulted in his death. Dr. Vaccaro, a Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (Philadelphia) surgeon, took scans of Merrick’s skeleton and recreated it on the computer. He found vertebrae that were twisted and believes it was from Merrick’s 20-pound head falling back and crushing the spinal cord. This makes sense because it would be quite a weight for the head to fall from the sitting sleeping position, meaning it was possible it twisted and damaged the cord. The original theory, meanwhile, has problems since Merrick had strong neck muscles and, even though it would be very uncomfortable, suffocation should not have occurred if he slept lying down.
For more on this, the Discovery channel will be showing a documentary on it Wednesday March 23, 2011.