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J R Soc Med. 2004 August; 97(8): 407.
PMCID: PMC1079570

The Pig-faced Lady of Manchester Square & other Medical Marvels

Reviewed by Sue Weir

Jan Bondeson
288 pp Price £8.99 ISBN 0-7524-2968-X (hb)
Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

For those interested in the anomalies of the human body Dr Bondeson's latest work offers many examples—a treasure trove of the morbid and unusual and, for the medically inclined, some intriguing case histories. Bondeson has written at least four other books on the bizarre, and the Pig-faced Lady is a tour de force—highly researched, well illustrated where possible and bringing to life the people affected.

Was the early-nineteenth-century pig-faced lady in the title real or just a hoax? The author's meticulous research cannot find the answer. Her predecessor Tannakin Skinker from Holland, who made her first appearance in London in 1639 where she was hoping to find a husband, was much featured in ballads and songs but she too may have been more legend than fact. Similar stories are explored concerning hairy maidens, one of whom, Julia Pastrana, was reported in a Lancet of 1857. Conjoined twins are another area explored. Sometimes these were put on show to provide a living for themselves and their families; thus we have newspaper reports, advertisements and articles in medical journals to substantiate the claims for one body supporting two persons. Probably it is the story of Daniel Lambert from Leicestershire that will appeal most to the medical world—especially in the light of today's obsession with obesity. An entire chapter is devoted to the 'English fat man', illuminated by the author's own experiences as a senior registrar dealing with primary obesity. Bondeson also tells with enthusiasm the stories of two eighteenth-century giants, the Swede Daniel Cajanus and the Irishman Charles Byrne (whose skeleton is in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England). With clever marketing these men made substantial amounts of money by exploiting their extreme condition as showmen, though both contrived to lead relatively normal lives. Cajanus was a prudent intelligent man; Byrne's intellect was not helped by his habit of drinking at least one large bottle of gin or whisky every day. These chapters on the fat and tall are the most interesting and readable in the book; in his accounts of the King of Poland's Court Dwarf and the Sicilian Fairy (whose skeleton and clothes are likewise at the Royal College of Surgeons of England), Bondeson tells us more about the person behind the abnormality, and does so with great skill. The Dwarf does not emerge as an endearing character.

The other medical marvels will await the reader to be amazed, repulsed or mildly amused; this is a book to dip into and some of the evidence to be taken lightly. If you are fascinated by congenital abnormalities you will be excited. If you are revolted by the whole scene, spare yourself a trip to the bookshop.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press