Fresh eyes on freaks

The curator of Philadelphia's Mütter Museum reviews a new book about medical oddities and their place in our understanding of biology

Anna N. Dhody
Dec 10, 2008
I admit I was initially reluctant to review the book, linkurl:__Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution__,;http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/Neuroscience/?view=usa&ci=9780195322828# by linkurl:Mark S. Blumberg.;http://www.psychology.uiowa.edu/faculty/blumberg/blumberg.html I had always recoiled at the word freak; in my opinion an ignorant and dismissive slur used to relegate an individual to non-entity status, unworthy of serious attention. Then again, wouldn't dismissing this book as unworthy based on the title be just as dismissive? When people come to the Mütter Museum "to see the freaks" I cringe inwardly, smile outwardly and generally say nothing at all. I have found over the years that the inhabitants of this remarkable place say far more than I ever could. Whatever the reason for visiting the museum -- fascination, repulsion, even derision -- people tend to leave more informed and perhaps even more aware than when they arrive. And that is exactly how I felt after reading this book....
.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/Neuroscience/?view=usa&ci=9780195322828# by linkurl:Mark S. Blumberg.;http://www.psychology.uiowa.edu/faculty/blumberg/blumberg.html I had always recoiled at the word freak; in my opinion an ignorant and dismissive slur used to relegate an individual to non-entity status, unworthy of serious attention. Then again, wouldn't dismissing this book as unworthy based on the title be just as dismissive? When people come to the Mütter Museum "to see the freaks" I cringe inwardly, smile outwardly and generally say nothing at all. I have found over the years that the inhabitants of this remarkable place say far more than I ever could. Whatever the reason for visiting the museum -- fascination, repulsion, even derision -- people tend to leave more informed and perhaps even more aware than when they arrive. And that is exactly how I felt after reading this book.
Blumberg, a University of Iowa behavioral neuroscientist, covers an immense amount of material in a relatively short book -- 326 pages including notes, suggested readings and index. The introduction and first chapter, "A Parliament of Monsters," were tough to get through. The author recites a litany of theories and their progenitors, moving haphazardly back and forth hundreds of years, trying to cover the evolutionary bases while shoehorning in linkurl:P.T. Barnum,;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/52922/ artificial cranial deformation, and foot binding. I admit I found the discussion on the intricacies of gender based urination fascinating, and it did answer that age old question as to why men pee standing up -- "because they can." While not pedantic per say, Freaks does inch to the precipice in the first chapters. In chapter two, "Arresting Features," Blumberg settles in and introduces some interesting theories and characters. I was particularly taken with linkurl:Harris Hawthorne Wilder,;http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/smitharchives/manosca119_bioghist.html a zoologist who sought to classify "'monstrosities' as natural and symmetrical in their development as are normal individuals?" My predecessor, linkurl:Gretchen Worden,;http://www.collphyphil.org/gw.htm once took me around the museum and told me to look at the collections as representatives of either end of the bell curve of humanity. Those words have stayed with me. And while Blumberg grapples with this idea -- "But it is not so easy to adopt Wilder's noble perspective while gazing upon a cyclopic infant. Wilder's perspective can come only with repeated exposure and desensitization" -- I feel that my repeated exposure (I do gaze upon a cyclopic infant almost daily) has reinforced the idea that, while not normal or even functional, anomalies are parts of humanity. In chapter three, "Do the Locomotion," Blumberg aptly conveys that an anomaly is not necessarily a handicap. linkurl:Johnny Eck,;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4aET2RGG5Q a man born without legs, challenges our notions of just how a human ought to move. "Eck's movements are so fluid, so natural -- and yet his condition appears the opposite of natural...He seems perfectly adapted to his condition - and in a sense he is," Blumberg writes.
__A young girl with Amelia, a condition marked by
undeveloped arms or legs. Johnny Eck
had this same condition.__
__Photo: Courtesy of the Mütter Museum,
College of Physicians of Philadelphia__
Blumberg uses a photograph from our historical collection at the Mütter of a girl with stunted and useless legs, who like Eck compensates by walking on her hands. She stares down the camera, and Blumberg quotes Worden saying "You don't get the sense of any deformity [and] certainly not disability. She's perfectly able." Later in the book, Blumberg shifts his focus to the genetic and environmental factors that create or modify biological anomalies. "The key is to appreciate that development arises through a network of genetic and nongenetic interactions cascading through time," Blumberg writes. "Within that network, developmental events that rely on a particular gene in one instance can occur through environmental influences in another." This comes into play even when accidents force individuals into genders originally not their own, as was the case with linkurl:David Reimer,;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Reimer whose penis was burned off during a botched circumcision at 8 months old. He was "reassigned" to a female role, given estrogen injections, and called Brenda. While his body looked entirely female, he never fully accepted his reassignment. Through David/Brenda Blumberg explores how intersex humans and animals adapt (or don't) depending on a variety of genetic and environmental inputs, the timing of which are crucial. Through his many detailed examples and eloquent illustrations Blumberg argues that we need to extend our concept of evolution to include anomalies into the equation. While the Darwinian school of thought left no room for "monsters" Blumberg states "...as long as monsters are banished to a province beyond the boundaries of traditional evolutionary thought, we are denied the benefit of their company." Pertinent words that I hope are heeded.__Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution__, by Mark S. Blumberg, Oxford University Press, USA, 2008. 344 pp. ISBN: 978-0-195-32282-8. $22.95.__Anna N. Dhody is the Curator of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a museum of medical history as well as a repository for some of the world's most fascinating medical oddities. She is a trained physical and forensic anthropologist and is also an adjunct professor at Widener University.__

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