Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard


Joe’s Museum of “Human Oddities”

In my historical mystery, The Beauty Doctor, the wealthy and eccentric Joe Radcliff is a collector of what he terms human oddities—unusual specimens of human heads, bodies or parts thereof, preserved as dried or skeletal remains or floating in bottles of alcohol or formalin. Sounds creepy, right? But actually our fascination with human malformations—the study of which is called teratology—dates back at least 5000 years to the Egyptians. People with congenital defects were sometimes deified, at other times considered bad omens or God’s punishment. In the Edwardian era, when my story takes place, people were beginning to consider human malformations as actual medical conditions, which in some instances only served to heighten the public’s concern about the possibility of their “spread” through some unknown channel of contagion.

Over the years, many theories about the cause of human malformations have been proposed. Numerous scholarly articles appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the late 1800s supported the idea that congenital malformations were the result of “maternal impressions.” Actually, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, born around 384 BC, espoused a similar view, advising pregnant women to observe beautiful statues in order to increase their unborn children’s beauty! At the close of the nineteenth century, other popular theories to explain deformities included amniotic pressure or adhesions, faulty “germ plasm,” mechanical interference with the embryo, and inflammation. “Developmental arrest” was another popular theory that developed a bit later.

Because the interest in teratology was especially strong in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of notable collections were developed during that period. One such collection was assembled by Gerardus Vrolik (1775-1859) and his son, Willem Vrolik (1801-1863), both professors of anatomy. Their collection is available for public viewing at the Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam (https://www.amc.nl/web/AMC-website/Museum-Vrolik-EN/Museum-Vrolik.htm). WARNING: some of the images on the museum’s website are disturbing and not for the faint of heart.

In The Beauty Doctor, Baron Ludwik Rutkowski—guardian of the young Spanish conjoined twins, Valencia and Melilla Rosa—is at first intrigued by Joe’s concept of a museum of human oddities, believing that Mr. Radcliff’s intention is to highlight the courage and resilience of these rare human beings and to help counter the rampant prejudices against them. Though the image shown here (below) is only a work of the imagination (and is not associated with my novel), perhaps it might help you to visualize the anatomy of the twins in my story. This type of conjoined twins is called dicephalic parapagus—meaning that each twin has a separate head, but their bodies are joined—and it is extremely rare. You may be familiar with Abigail and Brittany Hensel (born March 7, 1990), the American dicephalic parapagus twins who have achieved fame not only for their longevity (dicephalic parapagus twins seldom survive to adulthood, though having separate hearts and lungs, as do the Hensel twins, increases the chances) but, more important, for their notable accomplishments as intelligent, vibrant and spirited young women.  If you have never checked out some of their videos on YouTube, you ought to do so. They are truly an inspiration!

As for what happens to the twins Valencia and Melilla Rosa in my book, I hope you will read it to find out! Buy the historical mystery/suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor, now.

Stylized drawing of conjoined twins: “Nani and Kisa” by Kurt Komoda (https://www.flickr.com/photos/komoda/5319847793)

Reference: Barrow MV. “A Brief History of Teratology to the Early 20th Century.” Teratology. 1971.

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In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.

 

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