Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), better known by his stage name as the “Elephant Man,” began working in traveling exhibitions in his early twenties after years of being afflicted by a host of physical deformities. After dying at the age of twenty-seven due to complications from his mysterious ailment, various casts were made of his body and skeleton for study, afterwards held in the Royal London College of Medicine Museum. Intrigued by the unknown affliction that plagued Merrick and motivated by the need to show the potential scientific significance of his remains—private entities were attempting to purchase them for personal collections—Dr. William Maples made a formal request to personally examine the bones himself.
Using superimposition techniques to compare the body cast and Merrick’s skeletal remains, Maples was able to discern how much of Merrick’s physical deformities originated from either bone structure and soft-tissue. Some doctors believe these abnormalities may have been the result of a rare congenital disease known as Proteus syndrome. Thus far, DNA tests have so far proven inconclusive—due in part to the 19th century preservation process which called for the bones to be boiled, thus destroying any possibility of retrieving viable DNA—which means the reason behind Merrick’s condition is still up for debate.