Picks and Pans Review: The Illustrated True History of the Elephant Man

updated 09/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Michael Howell and Peter Ford

The life of Joseph Carey Merrick, the grotesque-looking man who was rescued from a freak show by a compassionate doctor, Sir Frederick Treves, has been hauntingly told on both stage and in film, where his name was changed to John. Howell, a British doctor, and Ford, a free-lance writer-editor, now provide the details behind that story in this often touching book. The photographs included reveal a figure at once repulsive and irresistibly human. Merrick, born in 1862 in Leicester, England, was a victim of neurofibromatosis, a still incurable condition which distorts the skeletal structure and skin. (Though his mother apparently was frightened by a menagerie elephant while pregnant with him, Merrick got his freak-show name because of his thick, lumpy skin, huge head and long, trunk-like upper jaw.) When he first met Merrick, Treves described him as "the most disgusting specimen of humanity" and complained of the overpowering stench that arose from him. Treves eventually sheltered and tried to treat Merrick at London Hospital and came to respect his "undaunted courage." Merrick, who died at 27 when he tried to lie down on a bed "like other people" and dislocated his neck because of the weight of his head, was fond of slightly misquoting a poem by an early 18th-century clergyman, Isaac Watts: "Was I so tall, could reach the pole,/Or grasp the ocean with a span;/I would be measured by the soul,/The mind's the standard of the man." (Allison & Busby/Schocken, $15.95)

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