Turned to Stone: The Case of the Unusual Skeleton

00In a letter dated 14 April 1736, the surgeon John Freke (picture below) wrote to the Royal Society regarding a highly unusual case involving a patient at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

A boy, who looked ‘about Fourteen Years old,’ had come into the hospital to ask ‘what should be done to cure him of many large Swellings on his back.’ These growths—some of which had started to develop three years prior—were now as large as a ‘penny loaf.’ Freke continued with his description of this horrifying condition:

They arise from all the Vertebrae of the Neck, and reach down to the Os Sacrum; they likewise arise from every Rib of his Body, and joining together in all Parts of his Back, as the Ramifications of Coral do, they make as it were, a fixed bony Pair of Bodice.

Freke ended the letter by adding that the boy ‘had no other Symptom of Rickets on any Joint of his Limbs.’ [1]

NPG D31564; John Freke by George Vertue, after  John Riley

What Freke was describing is a rare condition now known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP). The disease slowly and irreversibly turns soft tissue into bone. Although FOP is not fatal, most die young—starving to death after their jaws freeze shut or suffocating when new bone develops, making it impossible to breathe.

Freke was the first to describe the condition in detail. However, a French physician by the name of Gui Patin may have come across FOP in the 17th century when he wrote to a colleague that he ‘saw a woman today who finally became hard as wood all over.’ [2]

Today, FOP affects approximately 3,300 people worldwide, or 1 in 2 million. Given the rarity of the condition, I was surprised to find an 18th-century skeleton showing the tell-tale signs of FOP in the Hunterian Collection at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. And yet there it was, catalogued simply as RCSH/P 804.

I wondered: whose bones were these? And how did they end up in the hands of John Hunter?

It turns out that when the surgeon, George Hawkins, died suddenly in 1783, he left behind a collection of anatomical specimens that were then auctioned off. Amongst them was the skeleton of an adult male with an excessive number of bony outgrowths on his rather twisted frame. Hunter—always on the lookout for rare and unusual specimens—purchased the skeleton for the extraordinary sum of 85 guineas. [3]

00Records at the Royal College of Surgeons describe the skeleton as belonging to a 39-year-old man named Mr Jeffs. Hunter’s assistant, William Clift, later reported that he had been told that the skeleton had been buried for seven years before it was procured, presumably by Hawkins. According to Hunter,  this was ‘evident from the state of the softer parts of most of the bones.’[4]

Was this the body of the young boy whom had sought Freke’s help in 1736? If the boy was indeed 14-years-old, as Freke had guessed, that would put his death sometime around 1761. Add to that 7 years before his skeleton was recovered, and it is very possible the specimen now residing in the Hunterian Collection once belonged to the boy described in the letter.

Of course, like so many of the specimens residing in medical collections today, we will never be able to confirm the skeleton’s former identity. What I can say with some degree of certainty is that he must have suffered greatly in the 18th-century. With no real way to manage his pain, everyday life would have been excruciating. It is also likely that he would have been unable to work at the end of his life. Depending on his financial circumstances, this could have been just as crippling as his debilitating condition.

Today, Mr Jeffs ‘stands’ next to Charles Bryne, the famous Irish Giant. Visitors to the Hunterian are often mesmerised by Byrne’s 7’7’’ frame, and rarely cast more than a fleeting glance at the twisted skeletal remains next to him.

Hidden in the shadows of something much bigger than himself, Mr Jeffs is to visitors what he likely was to surgeons in his day: a passing curiosity.

 

1. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 41 (January, 1753): pp. 369 – 370.
2. Qtd in Thomas Maeder, ‘A Few Hundred People Turned to Stone,’ The Atlantic (Feb., 1998). I cannot track down the original source for this quote; although I do know that most people incorrectly date this letter to 1692. Gui Patin died in 1672, and his letters were posthumously published in 1692.
3. L. W. Proger & J. Dobson, comps., Descriptive Catalogue of the Pathological Series in the Hunterian Museum of The Royal College of Surgeons of England, vol. 2 (1972), pp. 68-70.
4. Ibid.

26 comments on “Turned to Stone: The Case of the Unusual Skeleton

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  2. Garnet says:

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  3. Theresa says:

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  5. poupoune1607 says:

    I saw this skeleton during my last London trip (I visited the Hunterian museum) and I was much more impressed by this twisted one than by the giant one. It must had been so painful!

  6. Keenan says:

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  7. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really
    something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complicated and very broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  8. Michale says:

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  11. David Harley says:

    Could you correct the error about Patin?

  12. David Harley says:

    Gui Patin, letter of 27 August, 1648, to André Falconet, physician at Lyon, grandfather of the bibliophile and great-grandfather of the sculptor.

  13. […] Bad to the bone. The case of a most unusual skeleton. […]

  14. […] Turned to Stone: The Case of the Unusual Skeleton. […]

  15. jeanjames26 says:

    Fascinating post. I’m curious, out ot the 3,300 people FOP affects today, is life for them as painful and difficult, or are there treatments to slow the process?

    • Hi Jean – thanks for your question. Unfortunately, there is still no cure for FOP. Surgical removal of the bone tends to make the problem even worse (i.e. the bone not only grows back, but it grows back even denser). I’m not sure how the condition is managed these days. It’s a terrible disease.

    • Nicole Stanfield Caile says:

      I read somewhere that at some point in the lives of those living with FOP, they have to decide whether they want to spend the rest of their life sitting or standing–because they can’t do both. There is a pretty famous woman who works in fashion named Louise who has the disease:

  16. fascinating…. thanks :-)

  17. nightsmusic says:

    Great article, Lindsey! I thought for a minute, you were describing Joseph Merrick. I’d not heard of Mr. Jeffs before and found it fascinating.

    I’ve cared for patients with scleroderma before, but not this particular disease. I always learn something new.

  18. tessa harris says:

    Fascinating post, as always. Is that the skeleton of Charles Byrne, aka the Irish Giant, I see lurking in the background?

    The Dead Shall Not Rest (out now) The Anatomist’s Apprentice Winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Best First Mystery Award 2012 http://www.tessaharrisauthor.com

    Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2013 13:02:40 +0000 To: anatomists_apprentice@hotmail.co.uk

  19. David Harley says:

    There are suggestions that Byrne’s skeleton should be buried at sea, now that his DNA has been analysed to provide clues to the origins of acromegaly, where excess growth hormone is produced. Early treatment can now be provided, and family links have been traced in Northern Ireland.

    http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7597

  20. Alice says:

    Great article, thank you! It is a real shame Mr. Jeffs gets somewhat overlooked being next to Charles Bryne, though my supervisor (I volunteer at the museum) does make a point to wish a ‘Good Morning’ to each of them every day.

  21. Ally says:

    Very interesting! I had not heard of this condition- or the Irish Giant, for that matter.
    Thank you.

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