What is Elephantiasis?

“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” This heart-wrenching quote comes from the 1980 film, The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch. If you have ever seen this film it may have left you wondering what causes elephantiasis and how if affects the body. Also known as Lymphatic filariasis, elephantiasis originates from parasitic worms that spread from person to person through mosquitoes (Bandoim). Three types of parasitic worms can cause it but the most common is the Wuchereria bancrofti (“Lymphatic”). The worms affect the lymphatic system which is responsible for the removal of toxins from the body and oversees the transportation of white blood cells throughout the person’s system. Many individuals with lymphatic filariasis have a weakened immune system, ulcerated skin, discoloration of skin, and swelling of limbs, groin, and chest (Bandoim). People with the disease suffer physically, mentally, and economically because they are often handicapped and cannot perform everyday work tasks easily and face discrimination.

Joseph Merrick’s Life:

One of the most famous individuals to have had elephantiasis was Joseph Merrick. Mr. Merrick’s life inspired the movie I mentioned earlier on. Joseph Carey Merrick, born healthy, started developing deformities around the tender age of 5 (“Joseph”). Rumors say that his mother admitted to being frightened by a stomping elephant while she was pregnant with Joseph (an original theory used to explain his outward appearance). By the time he was a teenager, the disease negatively affected his hands and he found himself unable to work, which frustrated his father (“Joseph”). Desperate to earn his own money, he joined a side-show and was nicknamed “The Elephant Man.”

Two photographs (a,b) of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890)-also known as "the Elephant Man"-taken after his entrance at the London Hospital in London. © Wellcome Library, London, UK 
Image of Joseph Merrick taken shortly after arriving at London Hospital. Photo Credit: Researchgate.

Mr. Merrick worked directly across from the London hospital and it was not uncommon for medical students to come over to study his condition (“Joseph”). When Joseph was not working, he wore a dark veil and cape because he was harassed on the streets a lot for the way he looked (“Joseph”). Eventually Merrick befriended Frederick Treves, a surgeon working in the nearby hospital. After losing most of his money and becoming dreadfully ill, Mr. Treves helped raise money for Joseph to permanently live at London hospital (“Joseph”). He ended up dying in 1890, at the age of twenty-seven due to a broken vertebra, but it is important to note that it was once believed that he died from asphyxiation from laying flat on his back (“Joseph”). After his death, models were made of his body and his skeleton has remained a permanent specimen in London hospital’s collection. His story serves as an inspiration to everyone about the perseverance of the human spirit and the importance of compassion.


Today, elephantiasis is typically treated with antiparasitic drugs, surgery to remove affected lymphatic tissues, reconstructive surgery, and proper bandaging in order to prevent infection (Bandoim). The World Health Organization is currently attempting to eradicate Lymphatic filariasis worldwide by providing proper care to patients already affected and by focusing on preventive measures (“Lymphatic”). In some instances, preventive chemotherapy has been utilized in an effort to cease the spread of the disease throughout the body.

Would you like to hear more about individuals who overcame rare medical conditions? Leave a like or a comment and let me know.

If that doesn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time



Bandoim, Lana. “What is Elephantiasis?” healthline. Medically revied by Dr. William Morrison. 16 April, 2019. Accessed 28 September, 2020.Healthline.com/health/elephantiasis.

“Joseph Merrick Biography.” Biography.com. 15 September, 2020. Accessed 28, 2020. https://www.biography.com/performer/elephant-man-joseph-merrick.

“Lymphatic filariasis.” World Health Organization. 2 march, 2020. Accessed 28 September, 2020. Who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lymphatic-filariasis.

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