Will study of the Elephant Man’s skeleton reveal the cause of his extreme disfigurement 122 years after his death?

Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man and his skeleton which could hold the key to his condition

For over a century scientists have been baffled by what caused the terrible disfigurement of the Elephant Man Joseph Merrick.

But now they will attempt to unlock the secret of his suffering by analysing DNA from his bones – and hope to finally diagnose his condition.

Researchers intend to carry out tests next month to discover, if possible, Merrick’s genome sequence which will highlight any gene alteration. His skeleton has been preserved at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel since his death at the age of 27 in 1890 after a life of being regarded as a freak in Victorian society.

Constant bleaching to keep it clean has degraded the bones, so scientists are facing a difficult task to get enough DNA from the abnormal area of his skull. Professor Richard Trembath, vice principal and executive dean at Queen Mary, University of London is responsible for Merrick’s remains and is in charge of the research.

He told the Sunday Independent: ‘This is going to be extremely demanding. We need to know whether we can get sufficient [genetic material] from what we believe to be abnormal bone as well as sufficient from normal bone. In doing it, we have an absolute regard to make sure we preserve the skeleton. We can’t just mash a whole amount of it up. We have to preserve it for future generations because it’s an important historical record.’

Merrick’s earned his nickname because he was believed to be suffering from Elephantiasis, a condition caused by a parasitic infection leading to thickening and enlargement of the skin and tissue. But in 2001, there was speculation that Merrick suffered from a rare disease called Proteus syndrome which causes skin overgrowth and abnormal bone development.

Merrick was born apparently health in Leicester 1862, but as he grew up his lips thickened and a bony lump grew on his forehead. He had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head. There was a significant difference between the size of his left and right hand and both his feet became enlarged. His speech became difficult to understand.

Finally, his parents and stepmother rejected him and forced him out onto the streets when he was 17. Because of his deformities, he wore a hat and hood to hide his scary looks. To earn money he agreed to appear in a sideshow exhibited as a ‘human curiosity’.

By chance surgeon Frederick Treves who worked at London Hospital opposite the show, saw Merrick and invited him to be examined and photographed. Merrick later lived his final years at the hospital where he became a celebrity and no longer shunned by society. He was even visited by Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

The official cause of his death was asphyxia, although Treves, who dissected the body, said he had died of a dislocated neck. He believed that Merrick had been attempting to sleep lying down, to ‘be like other people’.

In death, the Elephant Man’s story has fascinated the world. He was played by John Hurt in the 1980 film Elephant man and Hollywood heart-throb Brad Cooper is currently starring on Broadway in an adaptation of the screenplay.

source: dailymail.co.uk

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