Review: Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold

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100 years ago, a Spanish Lady visited Europe, America, Africa and beyond. Seemingly swift, she travelled overnight infecting towns, villages, states and countries with influenza. In her latest work, Pandemic 1918, Catherine Arnold explores the trajectory of the illness, its impact on those who survived and died, and the present race to isolate and analyse the strain that caused the pandemic before another emerges.

At face value, Pandemic 1918, comes across as an exploration of the macabre, yet by the end of the flu’s journey, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of emotion that seeped from every primary account used. Arnold teased out panic, shock, denial, elation and curiosity from personal accounts, newspaper articles and images, in order to create a human representation of the Spanish flu’s impact on individuals, communities, institutions and ultimately the world. Coupled with statistics and facts relating to the spread of influenza and its impact on population, I felt the true scale of the pandemic and its impact.

I also enjoyed – perhaps a strong word considering the subject matter – the chronological approach to the flu’s story. Whilst in recent years thematic approaches have been utilised, Arnold chose the style that worked for the story she needed to tell. A chronological approach allowed for a clear and methodical look into 1918’s Spanish flu misery. As a reader, I gained so much from following events from beginning to end, something that would have been incredibly tricky to do had the book been organised thematically.  This chronological approach also gives Pandemic 1918 an alternative audience – one that is not dominated by medical historians, healthcare professionals and students. The simplicity of its structure allows absolutely anyone interested in the Spanish flu access to unprecedented information. The need for #accessibleacademics is on the rise, and Catherine Arnold is certainly one such historian.

Similarly, but by no means less importantly, Arnold weaves past experiences of the Spanish flu into present medical research – research that dictates global, medical and humanitarian responses to another flu pandemic. She asks whether the world as it is now would be able to cope with another pandemic of the same or larger scale as in 1918? How far is research going toensure our safe futures? What can we learn from the events of 1918? As much as I would love to answer these questions for you all, I think its best if you go and pick yourselves up a copy of Pandemic 1918, by Catherine Arnold. With more emotion and plot than a Sunday Times Fiction Bestseller, you’ll need to remind yourself regularly that these events did actually happen, and could happen again.

 

Paper, Flesh and Bone: An Exploration of Giants’ Lives in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain

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Figure 1: ‘Poster advertising the tallest man in the world, Henry Winkelmeier’, 19th century ephemera, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/xsbq5aur, last accessed 9th November 2018.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw an explosion in freak show performers and exhibitions. Anyone deemed ‘out of the ordinary’ had the potential to be displayed and exhibited, including giants. These giants performed to earn a living, yet whilst previous work by historians’ paint giants as passive performers who were exploited by entertainment managers and the medical profession both during their lives and after death, there is considerable archival material suggesting that whilst gigantism and acromegaly, (the diseases to which they owed their staggering height), did influence a giant’s decision to perform, their medical condition only had a negative impact after their death.

Using the rapidly changing and highly influential medium of advertising, giants and their showmen exaggerated the height of the giant and created a celebrity persona that appealed to audiences. Austrian giant Henry Winkelmeier, (1860-1887), performed frequently at the London Pavillion. One such performance, advertised on a poster in 1887, shows him dressed in a top hat and tails, towering over a ceremonial soldier.[1] He was also marketed as ‘The Tallest Man in the World.’[2]  This exaggeration of height via the visual comparison of a giant and a tall soldier that symbolised the health of the nation, and a declaration that he was in fact the tallest man to exist, demonstrate that those promoting giants used advertising to aggrandise their status. In addition, creating a demand for their performances by exaggerating a giant’s height and their popularity, giants and their showmen made a profit that then gave giants the autonomy to avoid financial hardship. The Swedish giant Daniel Cajanus, (1704-1749), informed the Daily Advertiser in 1744 that he was on the brink of death, despite only having a fever.[3] His subsequent performances were sold out- he used his illness to create a demand for his performance. Due to stunts such as this, Cajanus retired the same year, and reportedly spent 2,800 Netherland Antillean Guilders on lodgings in North Holland.[4]

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Figure 2: Giantess Anna Swan’s marriage to Captain Marten van Buren, 1871′, Wood engraving, 1871, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/vabbg6mx, last accessed 9th November 2018.

The performances that giants and their showmen advertised so meticulously not only made money for the performer, but also reinforced middle class values to the emerging working class. Clothing, positioning, and conduct on stage reflected the separate spheres theory dominant in Georgian and Victorian society – an ideology that limited women to domestic roles in the home and child-rearing, and men to work and public duty.  Giants presented their abnormal height in conjunction with Georgian and Victorian values such as the notions of femininity and masculinity, marriage and the nuclear family; the Nova Scotian giantess Anna Swan, (1846-1888) performed in traditional female Victorian dress, despite her height, whilst two giants, Mr and Mrs Patrick O’Brien performed with their son Brian O’Brien, highlighting the importance of marriage and family. The juxtaposition of the values and their height, suggested to the audience that no one was exempt from adhering to social norms.

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Figure 3: Giant Charles Byrne receiving guests. Etching by John Kay, 1794. Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/z4eyvur4, last accessed 9th November 2018.

After a giant’s death, their body was monopolised by the medical profession and demanded to perform, albeit under different circumstances. Against a backdrop of teaching cadaver shortages and without the protection of the 1832 Anatomy Act, the bodies of eighteenth century giants were pursued, stolen and studied by the medical profession in search of a medical discovery. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Irish giant Charles Byrne (1761-1783). After his death he wished to be thrown into the sea to avoid dissection, yet Byrne’s friends were bribed by the physician John Hunter, who wanted his body for examination and display. After boiling his body to bones to examine the giant’s physiology, Byrne now resides in a glass case in the Hunterian museum. Previous to this, the body of giant Cornelius McGrath (1736-1760), was dissected in front of an audience at Trinity College Dublin. Therefore, whilst satisfying medical curiosity, their bodies were also displayed to the public, both at lectures and behind glass cases in museums.

A close study of many eighteenth and nineteenth century giants therefore reveals a much more complex world than previously acknowledged. With the help of advertising and show fees, giants were able to live an autonomous life, whilst still enforcing middle class values on their paying, middle class audience. Yet whilst they lived autonomous lives, this autonomy was stripped from them after their death. Giants did their best to avoid dissection and display, yet many ended up in the hands of the medical profession or museum curators.

 

References:

[1] ‘Herr Winkelmeier, London Pavillion, Piccadilly,’ 1887, Evanion 245, Evanion Collection, The British Library.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anon, ‘News’ The Daily Advertiser, 13th June, 1744.

[4] J. Bondeson, Freaks: The Pig Faced Lady of Manchester Square and Other Medical Marvels, (Great Britain; Tempus Publishing, 2006), pp. 145-147.

 

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.

Acknowledging His Last Wishes: Charles Byrne, The Irish Giant

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Etching of Irish Giant Charles Byrne by J. Kay, 1794, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/z4eyvur4?query=charles+byrne 

Charles Byrne, otherwise known as the Irish Giant, died aged 22 in 1783. During his life he exhibited himself around the United Kingdom, attracting the attention of the public and the medical profession. Whilst the public, fascinated by his towering height, enjoyed his performances, the medical profession was intent on studying his body. They believed that his body held the key to understanding pituitary gigantism and were willing to procure his body by any means possible.

Fast forward to 1783, Charles Byrne died at home. Knowing of the medical professions’ obsession with his body, he made arrangements prior to his death to have his body thrown into the Irish sea in a lead coffin. Medical men couldn’t possibly procure his body then, could they?

Wrong! Enter John Hunter, prevalent surgeon and anatomist. He had been looking for an opportunity to study gigantism, (and complete his burgeoning private collection) – Charles Byrne’s death was his dream come true.

Hunter bribed Byrne’s fisherman friends was alcohol and £500 in exchange for them delivering the body to his London residence.[1] Once in his residence, Hunter boiled Byrne’s bones in a pot and hid them for three years in order to avoid suspicion.[2]

Byrne’s bones have been on display at the Hunterian since its opening in 1800, yet its current refurbishment closures have reignited calls for Byrne’s bones to be buried in the Irish Sea.

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Photomechanical print Charles Byrne’s skeleton displayed next to Crachani the Sicilan Dwarf at the Hunterian Museum, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rvgcd3k6?query=irish+giant

I fully support this campaign, and my reasons for this are two-fold. The study of giant’s bones, including Byrne’s, has led to the discovery of the causes of gigantism. Neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing examined Byrne’s skeleton in 1909, and determined that he had died due to a pituitary adenoma – brain tumour.[3] Since this research, pituitary gigantism has been identified as a medical condition and has aided the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. Byrne’s body is no longer needed for medical research. Today it is simply a museum exhibit – performing just as Byrne did when he was alive. 

Perhaps on an even more human level, it is clear from newspaper obituaries published after his death, that Byrne wanted to be buried at sea and evade capture by physicians:

 

“In his last moments (it has been said), he requested that his ponderous

remains might be thrown into the sea, in order that his bones might be

placed out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity.”[4]

 

As Byrne’s personal correspondence is not available to historians saved, we cannot be 100% sure that he expressed these wishes in the above way. Yet it is clear from the actions of his friends – they did throw a coffin into the Irish Sea, (albeit without Byrne’s body) – that he wanted to save his body from dissection.

As campaigners are suggesting, now is the perfect time for the Hunterian to review its accession and display of Charles Byrne. Byrne’s body no longer needs to be displayed or studied. It is time to acknowledge and act upon his last wishes.

 

References:

[1] J. Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, (Itacha; Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 196-7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] L. Bradley and P. J. Morrison, ‘Giants of the British Isles’, Ulster Medical Journal, 80:1, (2011), p. 31.

[4] Anon, ‘Charles Byrne Obituary’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1st June 1783, p. 514, taken from W. Moore, The Knife Man, The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery, (London; Bantam Press, 2005), p. 314.

 

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.

Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo chronicles the lives of Yejide and Akin, a married couple struggling to come to terms with infertility and child mortality against the backdrop of a politically charged 1980s Nigeria.

Whilst reading Stay With Me, I was impressed by the historical accuracy of the novel. Yejide and Akin cannot have children. Yet once they have children, via unconventional means, their first two children suffer from Sickle Cell Disease.  Sickle Cell Disease did, throughout Africa in the late twentieth century, affect many children. For example, a study by A. F. Fleming (et.al) of the Garki District in Nigeria during the 1970s, found that of the 534 newborns in the district, 2.1% had Sickle Cell Disease – 92% died.[1] Children aged between 1 and 4, of which 0.4% of 259 were affected, were expected to live no more than 5 years.[2] The death of Yejide’s first two children, Olamide and Sesan, at the hands of Sickle Cell Disease is an accurate representation of the true cost of Sickle Cell Disease in Nigeria. Multiple children from the same family died from the disease in the 1970s and 1980s.  However, Rotimi, Yejide’s third child, survives her Sickle Cell diagnosis and lives. But why? She is, for one, a symbol of hope at the end of the novel, a way for Adebyo to satisfy the reader’s appetite for a happy ending (of sorts). Yet Rotimi’s survival is also a reflection of falling mortality rates as the twentieth century drew to a close. New medical knowledge led to better treatment and condition management options. Rotimi symbolises this.

Ayobami Adebayo’s emphasis on healthcare and the importance of good health in relationships is shown through Akin and Yejide’s use of both orthodox and unorthodox medical practices in order to address their fertility problems. Whilst Akin seeks infertility help from a specialist infertility hospital in Lagos, Yejide takes a more traditional path, opting to visit a man atop a mountain and takes part in his fertility ceremony. Both treatments are unsuccessful, regardless of their orthodox and unorthodox status. These unsuccessful treatments are therefore an interesting insight into the real power of medicine: sometimes no amount of medical help from whichever option an individual chooses can help some conditions. Parallels can be made here with contemporary medical issues, such as IVF treatment and private medical care. Despite the money paid for treatment, successful procedures are not guaranteed.

Perhaps Ayobami Adebayo’s greatest success with this novel is her ability to combine human emotion with medical themes, in order to tell an intense story that doesn’t hide away from real life. Family members, neighbours and acquaintances are all affected by Yejide and Akin’s infertility problems – medicine and health are widely spoken about and debated topics in the community.

Stay With Me is a fantastic novel addressing infertility, medical practices and relationships in 1980s Nigeria. Infertility and Sickle Cell Disease are dealt with delicately, whilst retaining the realities of explosive emotions associated with health problems. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel marries emotion and medicine together beautifully.

 

 

 

[1] S. D. Grosse (et. al), ‘Sickle Cell Disease in Africa: A Neglected Cause of Early Childhood Mortality’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41:6, (2011).

[2] Ibid.

 

 

Irre-moo-vable Side Effects: Cows, Etchings and Opposition to the Smallpox Vaccination, 1800-1810.

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Figure 1: ‘Edward Jenner vaccinating patients in the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras: the patients develop features of cows’, Coloured etching by J. Gillray, 1802, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/vhkqym77?query=anti-vaccination, last accessed 23rd April 2018.

Edward Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine in the 1790s was a crucial turning point for the eradication of smallpox. Variolation, the direct exposure of an individual to the smallpox virus to encourage immunity, was replaced by Jenner with vaccination, in which a scab from the infectious cow-pox virus was inserted into the skin. Inoculation was therefore now possible and proved to not only save many 19th century lives, but also contributed to the eradication of smallpox by 1980.

Yet as with all new medical advances, the early 19th century smallpox vaccine was met with opposition. Coloured etchings held at the Wellcome Library, London, suggest that one simple aspect of the vaccine made the public and anti-vaccinators uneasy – the cow.

The fear of the cow was depicted widely between the years 1800 and 1810, the first ten years of the smallpox vaccination. A coloured etching by J. Gillray, published in 1802, depicts Edward Jenner vaccinating patients at St Pancras’ Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital (see Figure 1.) The patients who have been vaccinated are shown to be developing pustules, boils and extra limbs, all in the shape of small cows. One lady has even developed the horns of a cow. Furthermore, a young boy is shown carrying a pot of ‘Vaccine Pox, Straight from the Cow’, whilst Edward Jenner administers the pox into his next patient. The general public were fearful of being vaccinated with a disease present in cows and believed that the vaccine came directly from a cow. Contrary to this opinion, the vaccine was in fact derived from the scabs and blisters of those infected with cow-pox, not the cows themselves. The irrational fear of developing cow-like features highlights the lack of public understanding of vaccination; in an attempt to understand the vaccination process, those unfamiliar with medicine took the cow-pox vaccine literally.

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Figure 2: ‘A monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns; symbolising vaccination and its effects.’, Etching by C. Williams, 1802, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/aehkf98b?query=vaccination, last accessed 23rd April 2018.

The humble cow was further villainised in 1802 with an etching by C. Williams (see Figure 2). In this case, the cow is shown to be the cause of all 19th century infection and disease, such as leprosy, pestilence, plague, and fetid ulcers. Men with cow horns atop their heads are shown to be feeding live babies to the cow, whilst a man at the rear end of the cow is shovelling dead babies into a cart. Interestingly, the diseases which the cow’s body is shown to incubate were at the time incurable, suggesting that the smallpox vaccination was seen as a farce by anti-vaccinators. How could a disease that originated in an animal that harbours such horrid diseases, be the cure for smallpox? The cow was therefore seen as the opposite of a medical cure and so was deemed unsafe to play any part in the vaccination process.

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Figure 3: ‘A cow named “Vaccination”‘, Coloured aquatint by M. Dubourg, 1810, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/yeb2k92d?query=vaccination, last accessed 23rd April 2018.

Accusations doubting the reliability of the smallpox vaccine were also made amongst ant-vaccinators and the general public. This can best be seen in M. Duborg’s coloured aquatint of 1810, a portrait of a young white cow (see Figure 3.) At first glance, this piece of art looks to be nothing more than a detailed portrait, yet the caption tells a different story. Entitled ‘Vaccination, a favourite young cow’, this portrait argues that the smallpox vaccine was not reliable, due to its recent discovery. Anti-vaccinators were consequently also troubled by the vaccination of individuals with a vaccine less than 15 years old.

From irre-moo-vable side effects to anxieties surrounding the reliability of Jenner’s discovery, it is clear from the above etchings that the smallpox vaccine was feared by anti-vaccinators and the general public during its infancy. The cow was seen as unclean, unreliable and harmful to the human body, despite it having no direct link to the vaccine. The fear of the cow ultimately came from a simple misunderstanding; the origin of the cowpox infection used in the smallpox vaccine.

 

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.

 

 

Nightingale’s Notes on Hospitals: The Realities of Implementing New Hospital Layouts in the Nineteenth Century

 

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Figure 1: ‘Plan of St. Bartholomew’s hospital, London, 1893’, in H. C. Burdett, Hospitals and asylums of the world, (London: J & A. Churchill, 1891-1893), Portfolio of Plans, pages unknown, WX100 1891-B95h Vol. 1, The Wellcome Collection, The Wellcome Library, London, online access: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/mpc5fukx?query=st+barts+hospital+plan

 

Owing to relatively good health, the extent of my hospital visits begin and end at the phlebotomy department. Often quick visits, there is no time to study my environment. Yet the layout of hospitals sparked debate in the nineteenth century, so much so that during the latter half of the century, hospital environments changed dramatically. Reflecting on her life as a nurse, Florence Nightingale argued that the ‘wise and humane management of the patient is the best safeguard against infection.[1] In her book Notes on Hospitals, published in 1863, Nightingale applied this theory to hospital construction and layout, calling for all hospitals to provide fresh air, light, ample space and the subdivision of patients into wards and pavilions – this would prevent the spread of disease in hospitals.[2] Yet this perfect image of the hospital was not carried forward completely by planners. Very few hospitals followed all of Nightingale’s recommendations; the realities of existing hospital buildings and their functions meant that most, but not all, of Nightingales’ recommendations were implemented in every hospital.

 

Most hospitals adopted pavilion style wards, in which beds were positioned in long, low ceilings wards, with ample windows to allow for good air circulation. The 1893 plans of Kings College and St Bartholomew’s hospitals show pavilion wards containing no more than 32 beds, just as Nightingale proposed.[3]  Windows were also placed above every bed, giving direct access to fresh air and sunlight. Both hospitals also ensured that each ward was paired with both a scullery and a nurses room, in order to ensure good patient care both day and night.[4] Interestingly, both Kings and St Bartholomew’s were built before Notes on Hospitals was published. Similarly, the 1865 plans of East Sussex and St Leonards hospital show circular ward rooms each with 12 beds and ample light.[5] As the hospital did not move from its site in White Rock Road, Hastings until 1911, the wards could not emulate the traditional pavilion style. The adaptation of established hospitals therefore highlights the flexibility of Nightingale’s recommendations; pavilion wards with good ventilation and around the clock care could be provided in most hospitals.

 

Other recommendations were harder to follow. Operating theatres were very rarely placed between wards, but more towards the back of the hospital. This is the case with both Kings College and St Bartholemew’s.[6] It could be argued that the two hospitals status’ as teaching hospitals had an impact on operating theatre placement; the operations were performed close to student labs and teaching facilities. In contrast, the operating theatre at Swansea General Hospital was placed directly between the wards.[7] This placement is further evidence to suggest that Nightingale’s recommendations were adapted to suit existing hospital buildings; a hospital’s function, whether it provide teaching facilities or simply healthcare, had an impact on the placement of facilities.

 

Rather than being seen as rigid recommendations, Nightingale’s guidelines were adapted to a hospital’s individual needs. Notes on Hospitals became a vital nineteenth century tool that influenced every British hospital to some degree; the realities of hospital layout and functions dictated to what extent.

 

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.

 

References:

[1] F. Nightingale, Notes on Nursing: What it is and what it is not, (Philadelphia: J.B.Lippricott Company, 1992), p. 20.

[2] F. Nightingale, Notes on Hospitals, (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1863), p. 26.

[3] ‘Plan of St Bartholomew’s hospital London, 1893’ and ‘Plan of Kings’ College London hospital, 1893’, in H. C. Burdett, Hospitals and asylums of the world, (London: J & A. Churchill, 1891-1893), Portfolio of Plans, pages unknown, WX100 1891-B95h Vol. 1, The Wellcome Collection, The Wellcome Library, London.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Plan of E. Sussex, Hasting and St. Leonard’s Hospital’, in H.C. Burdett, Hospitals and asylums of the world, Portfolio of Plans, page unknown.

[6] ‘Plan of St Bartholomew’s hospital London, 1893’ and ‘Plan of Kings’ College London hospital, 1893’, in H.C. Burdett, Hospitals and asylums of the world, Portfolio of Plans, page unknown.

[7] ‘Building plan of Swansea Hospital, 1893’, in H.C. Burdett, Hospitals and asylums of the world, Portfolio of Plans, page unknown.

Review: ‘The Butchering Art’ by Lindsey Fitzharris

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Uk front cover of The Butchering Art – taken from amazon.co.uk

‘The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine’ by Lindsey Fitzharris was an odd book to place so highly on my Christmas list. Nonetheless, Santa delivered and my days between Christmas and New Year were spent entirely in 19th century hospitals, operating theatres and lecture halls. Focusing on Dr Joseph Lister and his implementation of surgical and hospital sanitation against the backdrop of ingrained, grisly practices, Fitzharris’ debut brilliantly captures the influence of Lister’s research and his long journey towards its acceptance amongst his medical peers.

Unlike some academic studies, The Butchering Art successfully captures the everyday reader with its story-like prose, whilst still satisfying the medical historian’s want of in-depth analysis of Lister’s experiments and surgical career. Yet the sheer gory nature of the operations performed and wounds inflicted upon 19th century patients added an extra layer to the story. I think both amateur and professional medical historians can agree, there is no such thing as too much gore – a opinion which Fitzharris seems to agree with!

Lister received significant opposition to his development of antiseptics, mainly due to its precise nature, and the inability of fellow surgeons to implement antiseptic procedures properly. Instead of solely focusing on Lister’s scientific work, Fitzharris has made the wise decision to contextualise Lister’s work within the framework of the 19th century medical profession, and society itself. Without the accompanying remarks on medical school status, the life of everyday men and women, and contemporary medical practices, Lister’s discoveries could have been in danger of looking irrelevant – just as they did to his medical contemporaries.

I would certainly recommend The Butchering Art to anyone interested in Joseph Lister, the introduction of antiseptic into hospitals, and indeed 19th century medical advancements and medical professionals. Medical history students should take particular note of this monograph, due to its brilliant context and engaging account of a important medical figure; The Butchering Art is a fascinating introduction to 19th century medicine.

 

The Freaks That Inspired ‘The Greatest Showman’

Starring Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, ‘The Greatest Showman’ musical delves into the life of 19th century showman P. T. Barnum. Famously known for his management of freak performers and the creation of a successful museum and circus, Barnum worked closely with freaks of all talents and abilities, in turn making a healthy profit. Whilst the musical primarily tells the story of Barnum’s success, it also features a multitude of fictitious freaks, many of whom emulate their real 19th century counterparts. ‘The Greatest Showman’ succeeds in chronically Barnum’s life, (albeit with a little Hollywood glamour and poetic license thrown in), and despite my reservations, empathetically portrays many freak performer’s transition from unemployed social outcasts to respected performers with a degree of financial autonomy.

For those who may love the film but perhaps do not know too much about the real freak show performers and their journey from poverty to autonomy, here just a few freaks similar to those shown in the film.

General Tom Thumb

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Charles S. Stratton, a dwarf known as General Tom Thumb, aged twelve. Lithograph by C. Baugniet, 1844. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

Born Charles Stratton, General Tom Thumb (1838-1883) performed for Barnum’s circus from the age of five, travelling across the globe. He performed primarily on his own until he married fellow dwarf Lavinia Warren in 1863. Thumb reportedly helped to reignite Barnum’s business after his fortunes turned, showing just how lucrative the entertainment industry could be for a freak show performer.

Daniel Lambert

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Daniel Lambert, weighing over fifty stone, aged 36. Coloured etching. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

Daniel Lambert was known for his heavy weight, at his peak his weight was recorded at 52 stone. Originally a gaol keeper, Lambert developed money problems in 1806. To raise money, he exhibited himself to visitors. Whilst only performing for a year, and never for P.T Barnum, Lambert is a fine example of a freak show performer in complete control of his display and earnings.

Bearded Ladies

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Madame Delait, the bearded lady of Plombières, head and shoulders portrait. Photographic postcard by Scherr, 1923. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

‘The Greatest Showman’ features a bearded lady, who becomes the figurehead for Barnum’s show. Whilst portraits of bearded ladies are available, currently little is known about their individual lives. Just as giants strove to be the tallest, bearded ladies strove to have the longest, fullest beard. This would not only increase their fame and publicity, but also their bank balance.

Of course, there are plenty more examples of freak show performers. Performing for both managers and for themselves, these show men and women provided entertainment for many 18th and 19th century spectators. ‘The Greatest Showman’ sheds light on a few of these entrepreneurial characters, who used their disability or perceived abnormality to support themselves in an otherwise tough environment.

*Featured image: ‘Show Bill, Barnum and Bailey’s show’, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), with permission from the Wellcome Collection, London.