In a companion volume to his A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (1997), physician Bondeson explores “the history of teratology, the science of monstrous births.”
Comprised of a dozen essays related by theme and structure, Bondeson’s study ranges far in search of the bizarre and even miraculous varieties of human appearance. He begins with a hirsute woman in 17th-century Germany who performed on the harpsichord and ends with nauseating accounts of gluttons, one of whom consumed “live sparrows, crawfish, mice, adders, and eels.” The author follows a similar pattern in each tale: he first presents the historical record (often quoting from extremely rare pamphlets and other documents residing in libraries and museum archives—or in his own abundant collections), identifies similar cases in the public record, then either provides the current medical explanation of the phenomenon or declares the story fraudulent (e.g., the accounts of egg-laying women in the 17th century). Sometimes he reveals how his subjects have been portrayed in the arts. Thus, for example, we learn that Daniel Lambert (1770–1809), the most corpulent man of his age (he weighed nearly 800 pounds), was so well known that writers like Thackeray, Dickens, and Melville alluded to him. Bondeson presents some astonishing facts. There can, indeed, be a “stone” child—the “calcified remains of an extrauterine pregnancy.” And some people do have horns (“concentric layers of keratinized epithelial cells”), caused by various skin diseases. And the conjoined Tocci brothers from Italy had two heads, two necks, four perfect arms—but only one lower body and one pair of legs; they toured Europe in the late 19th century and earned enough to retire. Nicholas Ferry, the famed dwarf, once emerged from a pastry shell during a fancy dinner to alarm the guests. Bondeson strives mightily—and successfully—to treat his subjects seriously and compassionately, thereby assuring a dignity that most never enjoyed in their lifetimes.
A sober, informative disquisition on the sundry forms that humanity can assume and endure. (85 b&w photos)