Rheumatologist Jan Bondeson has made a speciality of books devoted to the unusual and the marvellous - from the fear of being buried alive to bearded women, from two-headed children to horned women. His aim is to humanise freaks and oddities by putting them in their medical, sociological and historical contexts. He fills his books with dizzying arrays of facts, learned references and striking illustrations, and his prose is mercifully free of the jargon and obfuscation that one has come to expect from academic writings on these themes.
This volume (first published by Cornell University Press in 2000 as The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels ) is a collection of ten lavishly illustrated historical essays on topics such as conjoined twins, bearded women, giants and dwarfs. The title essay, however, concerns what we might call an urban myth about a normal woman with the head of a pig. Such tales have been common in different places and in different periods, but the most striking version, perhaps, circulated in London in 1814-15. The hog-faced woman, supposedly rich and young, "spoke only in grunts, and ate her victuals from a silver trough". She was seeking a husband and was prepared to pay handsomely. A few Londoners were interested, and the concept of a man selling himself into quasi-bestiality caught the imagination of caricaturists. Bondeson rules out any medical possibility of a totally porcine deformity of the human head and face and does not speculate on the cultural or sociological factors that may generate or accompany such rumours.
The rest of the essays concern deformities and anomalies that were far more real, such as that of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman born with hypertrichosis (an excess of hair) who was exhibited all over the 19th-century world as a virtual circus animal and preserved after death as a mummy. At the time, such cases were often presented as offspring of humans and apes. Today, these cases hold no mystery for the medically trained but, as Bondeson reports, cranks of various stripes continue to portray them as baboon-human hybrids or as children of the mythical monster Bigfoot.
Quite different was the experience of Daniel Lambert, the "human colossus" of early 19th-century Leicester, who weighed more than 700lb. Although Lambert had to put himself on show to survive, he became the symbol of fearless John Bull to cartoonists, who loved to depict him terrifying Napoleon. Such was his celebrity that pubs were named after him and a line of Victorian inkwells was modelled on his ample figure.
The experiences of other characters in this book fell somewhere between the indignities suffered by Pastrana and the cult status achieved by Lambert.
Most of them had to suffer being exhibited for profit in life and being cut up for curiosity by doctors after death. In each case, Bondeson provides as much information as possible about the lives of the individuals and the conditions that brought them to the public eye. Such detail is not always easy to shape into a cohesive set of stories, and the essays sometimes threaten to become lists of names, places and medical conditions.
The impression of being hustled through a disorganised museum is reinforced by Bondeson's too-anecdotal style and his disinclination to delve too deeply into the cultural conceptions of health, normality and pathology that shaped the lives of his protagonists. He would have done well to restrain his compulsion to show off the sheer extent of his collection and to focus instead on a few eloquent cases and illuminate their links, contrasts and broader connections.
Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science, Birkbeck, University of London.
The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square and Other Medical Marvels
Author - Jan Bondeson
Publisher - Tempus
Pages - 288
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7524 2968 X