Veiled clues may solve the Elephant Man mystery

David Keys on how traces of Joseph Merrick's saliva may show the truth behind his affliction

The last surviving possession of 19th-century London's so-called Elephant Man - the deformed Victorian freak show star, Joseph Merrick - could yield clues as to the precise nature of his appalling disease.

Conservators at Britain's Textile Conservation Centre - based at Hampton Court - have found the remains of Merrick's saliva, nasal mucus and probable skin grease on the original hat and veil which he used to hide his deformed face from the world.

Discussions between the centre and police forensic scientists indicate that it may be possible to extract DNA from the saliva and this could potentially be used to reveal what disease Merrick suffered from.

Until 1986, doctors believed that Merrick had suffered from a condition known as neurofibromatosis, but since then some specialists have claimed that the deformation of his body was the result of a totally different disease called Proteus Syndrome.

Potentially, neurofibromatosis could be identified by DNA tests on skin fragments normally found in saliva. This may be possible despite the fact that the material is old and very dry.

If, on the other hand, the DNA evidence totally rules out neurofibromatosis, then Proteus Syndrome would become the most likely cause of Merrick's condition. A positive DNA test for Proteus Syndrome itself does not exist yet - but may be developed in the future. Unlike neurofibromatosis, Proteus Syndrome is not hereditary, but both involve genetic changes.

Neurofibromatosis is a hereditary condition involving the overgrowth of the coverings of the nerve channels. One in 3,000 people in Britain suffer from it, mostly in a very mild form. It only manifests itself more seriously in one in three million. These days, serious growths can often be removed surgically.

Proteus Syndrome is an extremely rare non-hereditary condition, caused by a malfunction in cell growth, in which bone and flesh tissue overgrow in localised areas of the body. It was first recognised in its severe form only 16 years ago and only 80 cases have been recorded worldwide. In its mild form, it has been fully recognised only since 1992.

The saliva remnants on the Elephant Man's veil are probably the only way of solving the mystery of his disease.

For although his skeleton still survives as a specimen in the London Hospital Medical College attached to the Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel, east london, its use as a source of DNA was almost certainly destroyed in 1890 when the bones were boiled and then bleached with peroxide by Thomas Horrocks Oppenshaw, the London surgeon who was otherwise famous for his massive collection of gallstones and other calculi, and his role in helping with the Jack the Ripper murder investigations.

The conservation work on the Elephant Man's hat and veil - also owned by the medical college - has just been completed by a final year student, Michelle Harper, at the Textile Conservation Centre.

Moves by scientists at the medical college to assess the possibilities of using DNA to solve the mystery of the Elephant Man started last year - before the saliva was discovered on the veil.

Joseph Merrick, alias John Merrick, was born in Leicester in 1862 and died in 1890 from asphyxia caused by the pressure of his giant head on his windpipe.

Merrick was well educated, composed poetry and regularly wrote letters to friends and family.

He suffered terribly from his deformities. His right wrist was 30cms (12ins) in circumference, while his head was 90cms (35ins) in circumference.

From 1884 to 1886 he was the star of a freak show, from which he received half the income - and in 1886 he was admitted to the London Hospital as a resident patient, his upkeep paid for by public appeal.

His black velvet peaked cap and attached grey woollen veil complete with rectangular eye slit will be on show as part of a public display of conserved textiles at the Courtauld Institute of Art, central London, for the next three months.

Those other possessions which survived his death - his black cloak and slippers - were kept by the London Hospital Medical College, but were lost earlier this century.

Samples of his deformed skin and other tissues - preserved in alcohol - were destroyed during the Second World War; but the skeleton and plaster casts of his head and limbs are still kept for medical research at the college, but are not accessible to the public.

"If appropriate funding can be obtained we will attempt to get DNA from the saliva," said David Nunn, the college's senior official responsible for medical specimens.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence