What Really Caused The Elephant Man's Disease?

His name was Joseph Merrick. At one point, he tried to earn a living rolling cigars, but most of his working life was spent as a sideshow freak where he was known as "the Elephant Man." Born in Leicester, England, in 1862, he blamed his deformities on his mother's traumatic encounter with an elephant while pregnant with him. By the age of five, he started exhibiting the first signs of his eventual deformity — "thick lumpy skin ... like that of an elephant, and almost the same color," as he wrote in an autobiographical pamphlet

His mother died when he was 11, and his father and stepmother kicked him out of the house. He grew increasingly grotesque and had trouble speaking clearly. He ended up in a workhouse and underwent surgery on at least one of the protuberances on his face. However, Merrick decided that the only course open to him was to be exhibited as a freak. He first met physician Frederick Treves during this time, who examined him but came up with no medical explanations. Two years later, when Merrick was robbed and abandoned by his manager in Europe, he made his way back to London and contacted Treves, who took him to the London Hospital.

We have some guesses about the Elephant Man's disease

Merrick's body had deteriorated significantly during that period, and he now had a heart condition that Treves believed left Merrick with just a few years to live. Merrick stayed at the hospital and was befriended by Treves and the doctor's friends, including several members of higher London society. Merrick read, visited, walked in the park after dark, and built models out of cardboard. He expressed hope that someday he might live in an institution for the blind, where he might meet a woman who wouldn't see his deformities. That was not to be. 

His deformities continued to grow, especially on his head, which grew so heavy he could only sleep upright. He was found dead, lying on his bed, on April 11, 1890, a victim of asphyxia. As for what caused his condition? Scientists have run tests on his bones, which remain in the London Hospital, but results have been inconclusive. To this day, no one knows for sure. According to Biography, best guesses include Proteus syndrome — a genetic abnormality that causes overgrowth of skin, bones, and other body parts — or perhaps neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow along the nervous system. It could even be a combination of the two.

As if Merrick hadn't suffered enough, Michael Jackson made an offer to buy his skeleton. The London Hospital refused.