A London university has defended its decision to continue to display the bones of one of the nineteenth century’s most iconic disabled figures in a private museum.
The skeleton of Joseph Merrick is kept in a glass exhibition case by Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), more than 100 years after he died.
One disabled campaigner has called for him to be finally given the burial he deserves, only days after there were new calls for a permanent memorial to Merrick in his home town of Leicester.
Jeanette Sitton, the disabled founder of The Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick, said she believed Merrick’s body should be laid to rest, and added: “He is still on display for all the medical students to gawp at.”
Last December, there were similar calls for the skeleton of Charles Byrne, an Irish man who died in 1783 and was seven feet seven inches tall, to be removed from the Royal College of Surgeons’ (RCS) Hunterian museum in London, and given the burial at sea he had reportedly wanted.
Merrick spent his final years at the London Hospital, but after his funeral his body was handed to the hospital under the Anatomy Act, and was not reclaimed for burial by his family or friends.
It is believed that his organs and “remaining soft tissue” were buried in an unknown location, while his bones were eventually passed to QMUL following the university’s merger with London Hospital Medical College in 1995.
A QMUL spokeswoman said they understood from a book, The True Story of The Elephant Man, that Merrick was “expecting to be preserved after his death”, while she said the university “regularly consults” with his descendants over the care of his remains.
The skeleton is now kept in the Doniach Gallery, a teaching section of the pathology collection at QMUL’s Whitechapel campus, and is displayed alongside other medical “specimens”.
The QMUL spokeswoman said the gallery was “not accessible to the general public” and was open only to “supervised medical students and medical professionals by appointment only”, with each request considered by the curator.
She said: “The skeleton is displayed in a glass cabinet to allow medical students to view and understand the physical deformities resulting from Joseph Merrick’s condition. Those viewing the skeleton are also expected to consider Merrick’s feelings on his condition.”
She said the skeleton was “considered valuable for medical research”, the same reason given by the RCS for continuing to display the skeleton of Charles Byrne.
Merrick’s story was popularised by the Oscar-nominated film The Elephant Man, released more than 30 years ago.
This week, the mayor of Leicester – the city where Merrick was born and brought up – called for a new informative memorial, as part of a “Story of Leicester” project that aims to raise awareness of the city’s rich history.
The mayor, Peter Soulsby, said that Merrick “deserves to be remembered”, and added: “The story of Joseph Merrick is an important part of the history of Leicester and his story addresses important issues about society’s changing attitudes to disability.”
There is already a blue plaque, which has now been placed on the wall of a Leicester college, on the site of a workhouse where Merrick lived for four years, and which pays tribute to “a true model of bravery and dignity”.
Sitton said she would also like to see a more significant, permanent memorial to someone who demonstrated such “dignity and courage” and was “a great iconic person for people with disabilities”.
Merrick, who died in 1890, aged 27, had a condition that caused extensive growths on his face and body.
In his short autobiography, he describes running away from home two or three times following the death of his beloved mother – who was also disabled – and the remarriage of his father.
He left school at 11 or 12 but found it increasingly difficult to secure paid work as he became more disabled.
He wrote: “Being unable to get employment my father got me a pedlar’s license to hawk the town, but being deformed, people would not come to the door to buy my wares.
“In consequence of my ill luck my life was again made a misery to me, so that I again ran away and went hawking on my own account, but my deformity had grown to such an extent, so that I could not move about the town without having a crowd of people gather around me.”
He eventually spent four years in a workhouse, before contacting a Leicester entrepreneur to suggest that he be exhibited to the public.
He was nicknamed The Elephant Man and was reportedly well paid, touring in the Midlands and being exhibited in a shop in London.
After being robbed and abandoned while on a tour of Europe, he found his way back to London, where he was taken in by surgeon Frederick Treves and allowed to stay at the London Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital) until his death.
10 May 2012