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March 10, 1993

Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and His Interpretors

Author Affiliations

Southwestern Medical Center Dallas, Tex NYU Medical Center New York, NY

JAMA. 1993;269(10):1314-1315. doi:10.1001/jama.1993.03500100114045

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Victorian England was captivated by the curious. Great collections of plants, fossils, and animals were amassed privately and for museums. Less savory was a fascination with physical oddities. Individuals and items from the far-flung empire were brought to the major cities for study, and, sadly, even ridicule.

Joseph Merrick was one of the "oddities" who populated the freak shows of that day. Ascending to the English throne in 1837, Queen Victoria ushered in an era of development and unparalleled prosperity. Yet, it was an era not particularly known for charity. In their book Articulating the Elephant Man, Peter Graham and Fritz Oehlschlaeger, both professors of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, aim as one of their main purposes to "examine, in a chronological and critical way, how the phenomenon labeled 'the Elephant Man' has been constructed and reconstructed—how Joseph Merrick has been transformed from a suffering individual to