Dr. Treves and the Elephant Man

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Dr. Treves and the Elephant Man

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Most of us have occasional feelings of inferiority. We might have exaggerated concerns about our appearance and wonder if people think we are ugly, too short, or too fat. We might struggle with shyness, wondering if people like us or if we will be accepted. As we age, we might get upset over a few extra pounds or the graying of our hair, (or worse, the loss of our hair!) yet think nothing of it when these minor concerns are happening to other people.

It’s so easy to focus on ourselves, to blow our blemishes out of proportion. This inward focus can give us feelings of inferiority that can worsen into dissatisfaction with our life. Ultimately, we may perceive that we are meaningless and worthless. During times of self-pity it's a good time to stop and take a hard look at ourselves to get a better perspective.

Joseph Merrick was one of the most deformed individuals who ever lived. Born in Leicester, England in 1862, he began to develop tumors on his face just before his second birthday. This condition rapidly worsened as large growths spread over his head and body. By the time he was an adult, it was said his head was two or three times normal size. The tumors had become masses of spongy, fungous cauliflower looking skin. One growth partially covered one eye and another on his upper jaw protruded through his mouth making his speech almost unintelligible. He was incapable of any expression. Large sack-like masses of the tumors sagged from his back and chest. His left arm was normal, but his right was large and shapeless with what looked more like a paddle than a hand. He was below average in height and the bowing of his back made him look even shorter. He was almost lame due to extreme pain. To make things even more miserable, his skin gave off a foul smell.

Despite his deformities, Merrick was a normal man with normal male desires. He wanted to marry, but what woman would want to marry him in his condition? A romantic at heart, he would occasionally express an interest in going to live at a home for the blind—perhaps a blind woman would not be so concerned with his appearance and condition.

It is said that as a youth, the workhouse became Merrick’s home. Later, much of his life was spent traveling as a circus or carnival exhibit where he became known as the Elephant Man, probably because of the texture of his skin as well as the growth from his mouth. Dr. Frederick Treves, in his biography about the Elephant Man, described him as having lived a life of degradation and extreme poverty. Dragged from town to town, from carnival to carnival like some strange animal in a cage, Merrick was made to expose his nakedness and deformities to shocked crowds who would stare in disbelief at his condition. In a sense, Merrick had no boyhood—he never experienced pleasure or fun a normal child would. Dr. Treves wrote that the Elephant Man’s sole idea of happiness was to crawl off into the dark and hide.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to live in a cage, to be mistreated and fed scraps. Imagine what it would be like to have people pay to see you and to be treated like a dog. Imagine the curtain dropping from around your cage and hearing people react with gasps of horror at the sight of you. That was the life of the Elephant Man.

As time went on, the Elephant Man show was banned. Merrick ended up in a run-down shop in London where he was kept for a time by a shopkeeper and exhibited for money. That’s where he met Dr. Frederick Treves, who came by to see him and study his unusual condition. Treves befriended him—possibly the only real friend Merrick ever had. He eventually got him a room at the London Hospital and saw to it that Merrick cared for the rest of his life. The doctor helped get him healthy, had him cleaned up (which helped immensely with the odor) and made sure he was sheltered from the curious and from the ridicule that he had experienced in the past.

Treves marveled that despite having been so mistreated, Joseph Merrick did not become bitter and resentful. He said Merrick was gentle, affectionate, never had an unkind word for anyone and that he never heard him complain.

The Elephant Man's final years were much happier. He resided at the London Hospital and was visited by many in English society, including Queen Alexandra. He was comfortable, fed, accepted, and as he told Treves, was happy every hour of the day. Joseph Merrick died in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven.

In Luke 10:30-37, Jesus speaks about a man who went down to Jericho from Jerusalem and ran into thieves who beat him up, tore his clothes from him and left him on the side of the road half-dead. He talks about a priest walking by and ignoring him. Later, a Levite comes by and also declines to offer help. Then a Samaritan (Samaritans were not the most popular group of people back then) came by and had compassion for the man. He cleaned him up, took him to an inn and tells the innkeeper, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you” (Luke 10:35).

Jesus asks the question, “‘which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said unto him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

Dr. Frederick Treves set a wonderful example as a 19th-century Good Samaritan.

Today we may not see many people like the Elephant Man, or people lying beside the road after being beaten up and robbed. But there are a lot of people who are hurting who we can help. Christians can get frustrated at times, feeling inadequate to help, but there are some things we can do. And it does not have to be big —there are lots of little things we can do day-to-day. Sometimes something as simple as a card or phone call can make a difference in someone’s life. A kind word can do wonders. You never know if just a smile and a little encouragement could keep him or her from really going off the deep end. Just look for a need somewhere in someone’s life and then, within your ability, fill that need.

Treves tells another story about the Elephant Man. Treves wanted to help him get to know some people. He asked a friend, a pretty young widow, to visit Merrick, smile, shake his hand and wish him good morning. When the young lady did this Treves watched as Merrick let go of her hand, then bent his big, deformed head over his knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. Merrick explained later that she was the first woman who had ever smiled at him and certainly the first one who had shaken hands with him. It began a real transformation in Joseph Merrick.

The next time our thoughts become too inwardly focused and we get to feeling sorry for ourselves over the minor trials of life or the shortcomings of something like our personal appearance or circumstances in general, we might think about the life and experiences of the Elephant Man. Better than that, consider the example of Dr. Frederick Treves and a certain pretty young widow who reached out beyond themselves and displayed the outgoing concern and compassion of the Good Samaritan in the life of the Elephant Man.

Reference and recommended reading: Ashley Montagu, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, 1971. And for more about Christian living, request a free subscription to The Good News magazine or The Bible Study Course.


  • ibek1
    Very good article. It brings home the point of mans' vanity. We humans miss the real wirth of a person by not looking on the inside and focusing only on the outward appearance. I kbow in my life I have often encountered wolves in sheep's clothing. We as Christians need to be more prayerful and seek the guidance of our Savior. Thank you for this wonderful and eye opening and heart searching article.
  • Darla Moody
    Thank you. :)
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