The elephant in the room


Treves was the subject of books and films but is best remembered for the compassion he showed to Merrick, the Elephant Man

Frederick Treves was born in Dorset in 1853, at 8 Cornhill, Dorchester— the Costa coffee shop on the site now proudly flaunts a blue plaque. Son of an upholsterer, as a small boy he was deeply influenced by attending the local school run by Dorset dialect poet William Barnes. In one of his many later books, Treves remembers Barnes absently pacing the floor of a classroom, lost in thought and possibly poetic composition, when Treves dropped a piece of fruit—food was forbidden in class. He scrabbled after it, Barnes (“the gentlest and kindliest of men”) fell over him, but it was Barnes who apologised, still concentrating on his poem. When he was 14, Treves’ father died, and his mother sold the family business and moved to London, where at 25 Treves become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He found a position at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, and began to establish himself, specialising in abdominal surgery.

And then, one day in 1884, Treves passed a vacant greengrocer’s in the Mile End Road, just opposite the hospital. The front of the shop was obscured by a canvas sheet, on which it was announced that the Elephant Man could be viewed within, for an admission price of tuppence. A daubed illustration showed roughly what you’d see. The exhibition was closed, but Treves located the proprietor in a local pub, and was granted private admission. He was shown into the shop—empty, dusty, and littered with old tins and bits of shrivelled vegetables. It was November, and cold. In his book, he explained the next moments thus. “The showman pulled back the curtain and revealed a bent figure crouching on a stool, covered by a brown blanket. In front of it, on a tripod, was a large brick heated by a Bunsen burner. Over this, the creature was huddled to warm itself... The showman, speaking as if to a dog, called out harshly: ‘Stand up!’ The thing arose and let the blanket fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities… but at no time had I met with such a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his feet bare, and wore a pair of threadbare trousers...” A sign hung by the curtain proclaimed: “The Deadly Fruit of Original Sin.”

This, of course, was Joseph Merrick, then a young man of 21. Treves would later discover that he had been born in Leicester, abandoned by his mother, brought up in a workhouse and run away to make an income as a freak on display. It wasn’t an unusual line of work: during the 1880s the British public could see Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, Krao the Missing Link and any number of giants, dwarves and bearded ladies. In the David Lynch film made in 1980 from Treves’ book, Anthony Hopkins, as the surgeon, weeps silently as he takes in the man’s appearance and condition.

Misshapen heads
Whether or not that happened, Treves does seem to have been very moved. He had Merrick, in a long black cloak and cap with a length of material attached to hide his entire face and body, conveyed to the hospital to be examined, astonished by the enormous, misshapen head (“from the brow, there projected a huge, bony mass like a loaf”), the fungal, cauliflower-like growths on the skin, the gnarled, slab-like face, from the jaw of which a bony mass projected, turning the lip inside out (and exaggerated, in the illustration, into a tusk or trunk), and the fact that although one arm was perfect, the other was a bloated fin or paddle. Merrick appeared cowed and shy and, due to his multiple deformities, seemed unable to speak. Treves assumed, and hoped for Merrick’s own sake, that he was “an imbecile” with no emotions or real understanding of his situation. We know now, of course, that the ‘creature’ was a hopeful, imaginative man who suffered from neurofibromatosis, a rare disorder characterised by tumours under the skin, around nerves and in the bones.

Merrick left, and the following day Treves found that the show had been shut down by police, and the shop was empty.

In 1886, Treves moved with his wife and children to a new home at 6 Wimpole Street, which would see his most flourishing years. Occasionally he thought about the man he had met, “exhibited as a monstrosity, housed like a wild beast, his only view of the world from a peephole in a showman’s cart”. During these years, it later transpired, that showman, Tom Norman, and his charge travelled to Europe, the exhibition having been banned as degrading everywhere in England. When they couldn’t work abroad, Norman pocketed the paltry savings of his cumbersome liability and put him on a train back to London. At a loss at Liverpool Street, hounded by a jeering crowd, Merrick gave police Treves’s card, which he’d kept. And his life was changed.

Many years later, what followed would be hotly debated, and in some quarters Treves’ name was dragged through the mud. It’s conjecture now, I suppose, but it’s interesting to read modern takes on the case that say Treves exploited Merrick as badly as Norman did, using him for notoriety in a similar way. Yes, it’s possible, as
American academic Nadja Durbach insisted in 2013, that Merrick was happiest as a free agent ‘entrepreneur’, marketing himself as a sideshow. But independent to what extent? And always having to capitalise on his ‘horror’ value. For me, this argument feels a bit strained.

A lovable creature
Treves took Merrick back to the London Hospital and installed him in a small, private apartment he converted for him on the ground floor. He sat with Merrick every day and saw that he could indeed speak and with concentration be understood. Soon, Merrick began to lose his shyness. From Treves’ book:

“It would be reasonable to surmise that his brutish life would have a great effect upon a sensitive, intelligent man... he might be spiteful and malignant, swollen with venom, or a despairing melancholic. But Merrick’s troubles had ennobled him. He showed himself to be a gentle, affectionate and lovable creature, without an unkind word for anyone.” Treves brought him books, and soon the young man had a library of his own. He introduced visitors, who brought ornaments and pictures. He took Merrick, in disguise, to the theatre. He arranged for him to holiday in a remote country cottage, where Merrick, transported, collected wildflowers. He bought him the “dressing bag” he begged for, the sort of thing a young gallant might have, and Merrick spent hours lovingly arranging the silverbacked brushes and comb, the razor and silver shoe-horn, none of which he could use. Countesses, duchesses, Queen Victoria herself came to sit with him. The only thing Merrick didn’t have was romance. “His bodily deformity had left unmarred the instincts of his years. He would like to have been a lover.”

And then, in April 1890, Merrick was found dead in bed. Though Durbach maintains that he killed himself in misery, it’s more likely that, as Treves writes, Merrick had simply tried, for once, to be “like other people” and sleep lying down—the great weight of his head meant that he had to doze in a sitting position, head propped on his knees. His pillow was soft, he had died “without a struggle”, his head fallen backward and his neck dislocated. He was 27.

Treves had already performed the very first appendectomy, in 1888. In 1899 he took himself off to volunteer at a field hospital in South Africa during the Second Boer War and, on his return in 1901, was appointed one of several Royal Surgeons to Edward VII. The new king’s coronation was scheduled for 26 June but on the 24th, Edward was diagnosed with appendicitis. Treves decided to operate. “But I have a Coronation on hand,” roared Edward. Treves shrugged, “If I don’t operate, it will be a funeral.” London was full of dignitaries and heads of state, who had travelled here for the occasion; they had to go home. Treves performed a then radical operation, draining the infected abscess and leaving the appendix intact. The following day, Edward was sitting up in bed, smoking a cigar.

Never hesitated again
Treves had learned the hard way to follow through on his medical hunches. In 1900 his 18-year-old daughter Hetty developed severe abdominal pain. Treves wasn’t sure it was appendicitis, but he was wrong; Hetty developed peritonitis and died. He never hesitated again. The delighted Edward insisted the entire British Empire drink a toast to the new baronet, Sir Frederick Treves. Appendix surgery entered the medical mainstream.

Still happily based in Marylebone, where he had run a private practise since he was 45, Treves retired at 50 and turned his attention to the writing he loved. He wrote melodramatically but with care about Joseph Merrick (in The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, a book which would much later become a play, starring at various times David Bowie and Mark Hamill, before it was a film with Merrick played by John Hurt). He penned the Dorset edition of Macmillan’s Highways and Byways series, cycling over 2,000 miles around the county for research (it’s still the most popular book on Dorset). He wrote a book about his experiences of Edward VII’s illnesses, including the time the king fell down a rabbit hole, strained his Achilles tendon and had to be fitted with an iron splint. He travelled widely, detailing his travels. He wrote surgical books, and he also wrote about the influence of clothing on health, insisting, far ahead of his time, that women were dangerously deformed by corsets and that tightly swaddling a baby, which was habitually done at the time, was “unintelligible” and dangerous, too.

But the place Treves adored was Dorset. He rented a cottage in West Lulworth and moored his yacht Vagabond in the cove, where he taught a number of medical colleagues to sail.

Dorcester cemetery
Frederick Treves died at the age of 70 in Lausanne, Switzerland—ironically of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. His wife arranged for his ashes to be brought home to England, to be buried in Dorchester cemetery. The funeral took place on 2 January 1924, and was arranged by Sir Newman Flower, Treves’ friend and publisher. The service was organised by Thomas Hardy. Hardy, 84 and very frail, was implored by Flower not to attend: it was bitterly cold and raining hard. The poet insisted, and stood beside the open grave, without an umbrella, for the entire ceremony. He wrote a poem for the occasion, published in The Times, which began, “In the evening, when the world knew he was dead...” Treves and Hardy had been fast friends, often meeting to reminisce about old Dorset, dining on Dorset Knobs with Blue Vinny cheese, washed down with a fine Burgundy.

We all know about Thomas Hardy. Many know about Joseph Merrick. But no one really knows much now about Frederick Treves—in his time, an extremely famous man. And, if the deep friendship Hardy had for him says anything, it indicates that he was a good and compassionate one, too, who had helped someone very much in need of help, and certainly not used him.