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The history of human monstrosity

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Autumn


An exhibit at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library explores the “marvel and wonder” of human abnormalities.

In 1834, a Mexican woman named Julia Pastrana was born with protruding lips and thick black hair covering her face. Her appearance was caused by two rare conditions: hypertrichosis, a genetic mutation causing her hair growth; and gingival hyperplasia, an abnormal thickening of her gums.

Both went undiagnosed in her time.

Lacking a medical explanation, Pastrana became a sideshow oddity, billed as the “missing link” between humans and apes. She married one of her managers and had a child with him in 1860, but the baby was stillborn and Pastrana died shortly thereafter. Her story doesn’t end there‒her husband had the two bodies stuffed, and they remained on display for over a century. In 1976 they were stored in Norway, and in 2013 they were finally repatriated for burial in Mexico. “She’s a particularly sad case,” said Courtney Thompson, M.A. ’12, M.Phil. ’13, Ph.D. ’15.

“There’s supposed to be a level of historical distance, but it’s hard not to respond to her on an emotional level.”

Two handbills of Pastrana’s show appeared this year in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library’s “Teratology: The Science and History of Human Monstrosity” exhibit, curated by Thompson, a historian of science and medicine; and Melissa Grafe, Ph.D., the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History.

Teratology, from the Greek teras meaning “monster” or “marvel,” is the study of human abnormalities. The exhibit focused on the changing medical understanding of these differences through history. “People think of freak shows when they think about extreme bodily abnormalities,” said Thompson, “but what I wanted to show is that there is a scientific way of looking at these bodies that often undergirds the popular culture.”

Thompson and Grafe began the exhibit with a pamphlet from 1495 about a pair of conjoined twins. With the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, collectors and early scientists began publishing catalogues of the natural world, including unusual humans. “Some of these were monsters, people with hairy faces or scaly skin, giants, dwarfs, or conjoined twins,” Thompson said.

Starting in the 18th century, the scientific focus shifted toward explaining and classifying these physical differences. “The marvel and wonder became stripped from the scientific enterprise,” said Thompson. “They were emotions associated with the vulgar masses.” Included in the exhibit was an 1891 medical text, Human Monstrosities. Part of a four-volume set with a classification scheme for various human deformities, it included a large number of stillborn fetuses that were either photographed as skeletons or dissected specimens.

In the 19th century, the “freak show” also appeared. The exhibit included sideshow broadside posters for Pastrana, the “Irish Giant,” the “Living Skeleton,” and a pair of tickets to such sideshows. The autopsy report for Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins,” was also on display.

The exhibit concluded in the 20th century, as the medical focus turned from morphological classification to the underlying causes of abnormalities, both genetic and environmental. A photograph of a young German girl without arms accompanied by a LIFE magazine photograph of Frances O. Kelsey, M.D., Ph.D., the Food and Drug Administration scientist who led efforts to ban thalidomide, a drug taken for morning sickness that caused birth defects. Also displayed was a scientific journal titled Teratology. The cover depicted a pregnant woman with a red cross over her stomach and the words “Don’t Get Pregnant,” implying that environmental factors cause too many complications during fetal development‒at least in the authors’ minds. The “Teratology” exhibit highlighted medicine’s ever-narrower lens, zooming in from the outward perception of “monsters” to the microscopic causes of their differences.