Elephant Man

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Joseph Merrick
– who became known as ‘The Elephant Man‘, was not born in the East End, but his involvement with the London Hospital, Whitechapel and with Frederick Treves, one of its surgeons, made him inextricably linked to this part of London.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester, Leicestershire, England in 1862 and lived until 1890. He began to develop severe abnormalities during the first month or two of his life, and these manifested themselves as thick, lumpy skin on his body, together with a huge bony lump on his forehead. His lips, feet and one of his arms became grossly enlarged, and following a fall during his childhood, Joseph developed a severe limp.
elephant man

When his mother died in 1873, and following rejection by his father who remarried two years later, Joseph left home. In late 1879, the 17 year old Joseph Merrick entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.

At the age of 21, Merrick himself contacted a showman called Sam Torr and suggested that Torr exhibit him as a freak. Torr, with a number of associates named Merrick ‘The Elephant Man’, and began touring the East Midlands with their sad cargo in tow.

Merrick then travelled to London where he met another showman called Tom Norman who exhibited him in a shop in Whitechapel Road, directly opposite the London Hospital. Incidentally, the shop stands to this day but now sells Indian saris…

Treves discovered Merrick on one of his sojourns outside the hospital and invited him to be examined and photographed. Merrick agreed, and ended up staying in an apartment in the hospital for the remainder of his life.

Treves would visit him daily and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also used to receive visits from members of London society, which included Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
Joseph Merrick

Despite his atrocious deformities, Joseph Merrick was an intelligent and sensitive human being, and some of that sensitivity shines through in the intricate model of a cathedral he constructed whilst in his apartment, and which remains in the London Hospital Museum to this day.

Merrick died on 11 April 1890, aged 27. The official recorded cause of death was asphyxia, although Treves, who dissected the body, discovered that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck. He said it was his belief that Merrick—who had to sleep sitting up, supported by cushions, because of the weight of his head—had been attempting to sleep lying down, to “be like other people”.


The London Hospital in the East End was originally founded in September 1740 and went by the name of The London Infirmary. It changed its name to The London Hospital in 1748 and on its 250th anniversary in 1990 changed its name once more, this time becoming the The Royal London Hospital. The first patients were treated at a house in Featherstone Street, Moorfields in November 1740 but by spring 1741, the hospital moved to Prescot Street, and remained there until 1757. It then moved to its current location on the south side of Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, almost directly opposite Whitechapel Tube Station.

Joseph Merrick - The 'Elephant Man'

Joseph Merrick – The ‘Elephant Man’

One of the hospital’s more famous (or perhaps more correctly, infamous) inhabitants was Joseph Merrick, known as the “Elephant Man”.  He was discovered by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Treves found Joseph Merrick being exhibited at a sideshow along the Whitechapel Road and brought him back to the hospital to live. Merrick spent the last few years of life at The Royal London Hospital and his mounted skeleton is currently housed at the Medical School, but is not on public display. However, there is a model of a church in the hospital that was built by Joseph Merrick while living there.

The Royal London has a medical museum which is located in the crypt of a 19th-century church. It reopened in 2002 after extensive refurbishment and is open to the public free of charge. The museum covers the history of the hospital since its foundation in 1740. There is a fascinating forensic medicine section which contains original material on Jack the Ripper, Dr Crippen and the Christie murders. There are also displays on Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) and former Hospital nurse Edith Cavell.