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Unlocking the secrets of the Elephant Man
2013-08-30 0:00

By Andrew Bomford | BBC

The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, was an object of curiosity and ridicule throughout his life - studied, prodded and examined by the Victorian medical establishment. Now, 123 years after his death, scientists believe his bones contain secrets about his condition which could benefit medical science today.

Joseph Merrick began to develop abnormally from an early age, eventually being gawped at by Victorian circusgoers and examined by inquisitive doctors. The cause of his malformed head, curved spine, "lumpy" skin and overgrown right arm and hand has never been definitively explained.

Ironically, it is the medical preservation of Merrick’s skeleton that is now causing the greatest problems in unlocking his body’s secrets.

"The skeleton, which is well over a hundred years old now, is actually very clean," says Prof Richard Trembath, vice-principal for health at Queen Mary University of London, and the custodian of Merrick’s body.

"This represents a significant problem. On a number of occasions over the years the skeleton has been bleached during the preservation process. Bleach is not a good chemical to expose DNA to. It gives us an added problem in trying to extract sufficient quantities of DNA in order to undertake sequencing."

The hope is, though, that DNA can be extracted which will determine once and for all exactly what genetic condition he suffered from.

There have been several theories. For many years it was thought he had neurofibromatosis type 1, but in more recent years doctors have come to believe he had a condition known as Proteus Syndrome, or possibly a combination of both.

A team of geneticists from Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London, and the Natural History Museum are currently working on techniques to extract DNA from similar age bones which have also been bleached before beginning work on Merrick’s skeleton. They are anxious to keep any further damage to the bones to a minimum.

Bleach is sometimes used in labs to remove traces of DNA, so in many ways it is the worst possible thing to do to bones if the hope is to extract genetic information.

The genetic condition of Richard III’s remains - buried for hundreds of years below a car park in Leicester - is actually better than those of Merrick.


Joseph Merrick photographed (left), and his skull

Read the full article at: bbc.co.uk

The famous ’Train Scene’ from The Elephant Man (1980) depicting the hard life of Joseph Merrick:

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