Friday, January 3, 2014

"Casts of the Teeth of Julia Pastrana (1834-1860), the Nondescript" : Guest Post by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian Museum, London

Kristin Hussey--Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with responsibility for the Odontological Collection--has kindly agreed to write a series of guest posts for Morbid Anatomy about some of the most curious objects in her collection.
The second post from that series, entitled "Curious Specimens From the Odontological Collection," follows; you can view all posts in this series by clicking here.
Julia Pastrana was one of the most sensational figures in the era of Victorian circuses and sideshows. Pastrana was known as the ‘bear woman’, the ‘ape woman’ or the ‘the nondescript’ as a result of a condition, now known as hypertrichosis, which resulted in her entire body being covered in hair. Her corpse remained an object of spectacle long after her death in 1860 as it was toured around the world, embalmed, another 20 years by her husband-manager. With her remains recently interred in her home town in Mexico, the casts of her teeth in the Odontological Collection are the last remaining physical memory of the Victorian era’s most famous human curiosities.
Pastrana met her husband, Theodore (also called Lewis) Lent, in the early 1850s. The two married and Lent toured Pastrana across Europe singing and dancing as ‘The Beaded and Hairy Lady’. The tour was enormously successful, and Pastrana fell pregnant with Lent’s child. While in Moscow in 1860, she gave birth to a son, also seemingly suffering from hypertrichosis. The child died after 35 hours and Pastrana passed away as a result of complications of the birth. Pastrana’s famous last words were, ‘I die happy; I have been loved for myself.’ Not to be outdone by death, Lent hired a Professor of Moscow University to embalm his wife and son and continued to tour with them until he was committed to a mental institution in 1884. 
As well as fascinating the general public, Pastrana was of special interest to the scientific world, particularly as the theory of evolution was emerging. Doctors of the day debated whether she was a cross between human and orang-utan, a distinct species in the chain of human evolution, or simply a woman suffering from a disfiguring condition. The great debate that surrounded Pastrana could not fail to catch the eye of the inquiring dentists of the Odontological Society of London when she was exhibited in the city in late 1850s. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, the Society came into the possession of a pair of casts of Pastrana’s upper and lower jaw. The exact origin of the casts in the Odontological Collection is disputed. They were possibly in the founding collection of the College of Dentists from 1856, which was later absorbed into the Odontological Society. It appears that in 1859, A. Thompson presented casts of Julia Pastrana and again in 1876, R. Hepburn presented the same casts. It is of course possible that the Society held several casts of Pastrana of which only one set now survives. The casts demonstrate that Pastrana was afflicted with gingival hyperplasia which caused an overgrowth of the gums which resulted in the enlarged appearance of her mouth. From discussions recorded in the Transactions of the Odontological Society, it seems that the members were interested in whether there was a connection between the condition of Pastrana’s teeth and her unique appearance.
The suspicions of the Victorian dentists turned out to be correct. There is indeed a link between congenital generalized hypertrichosis and the presence of gingival hyperplasia. Indeed the casts of Pastrana’s teeth have greatly contributed to the later diagnosis of her condition. Other dental casts in the Odontological Collection of figures such as the Aztec twins from London’s sideshows show the Society’s keen interest in whether bodily disease could be understood through the teeth.
  1. Julia Pastrana, "the nondescript", advertised for exhibition of the famous bearded Lady.
    Coloured Woodcut and Text By: Regent Gallery (Regent Street, London, England)
    Published: W. Brickhill's Steam Printing Works.[London] (Kennington and Walworth Roads, 20 doors from the Elephant & Castle); Sourced from Wellcome Images
  2. V0007256 Credit: Wellcome Library, London
    Julia Pastrana, a bearded lady. Reproduction of a photograph by G. Wick.
    By: George Wick; Sourced from Wellcome Images
  3. Dental cast of the teeth of Julia Pastrana, from the Odontological Collection; Photo courtesy of the Hunterian Museum

1 comment:

gog magog said...

Thanks for this post.
I have been infatuated with Julia Pastrana for some years now and there is precious little texts I have been able to dig up on her. There is some very interesting commentary from her day which is quite charming.
Her husband made overtures to her when he first met her, by throwing figs over the wall of her family home, thus enticing her out. He was said to have been genuinely beguiled by her despite it being publicly understood that he married her simply to secure his rights over her ownership, as was the way with those Victorians.
Always thought her story would make a good movie, what a strange and obsessive love story! The traveling her taxidermy corpse around until winding up in the mental hospital is a real peach though too, isn't it!
Her name entered the vernacular in her day and was used as an expression of shock and disgust at anything deemed unsightly.
Please give us as much as you got on Julia Pastrana & Thanks again