Free symposium examines Elephant Man story and implications for modern medicine

Joseph Carey Merrick lived much of his life shunned by society and died in London more than a century ago, but his story might hold lessons for the modern American health care system.

Better known to the world as the Elephant Man because of his severe deformities that included tough, lumpy skin and an enlarged head and limbs, Merrick was put on display as a kind of carnival act and then lived out his last years at the London Hospital. He received little medical treatment throughout his life.

His story was fictionalized in the 1979 play by Bernard Pomerance and popularized in the 1980 movie in which Merrick was played by actor John Hurt.


Now the New Repertory Theatre is reviving the play and on Sunday will host a symposium looking at how Merrick’s story reflects on healthy policy today. The play raises questions about people’s right to basic health care and the duties of physicians in their service to patients, Artistic Director Jim Petosa said in a press release.

As Republicans in Congress continues to attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he said, “we still face the dilemma of determining who deserves health care and at which level. Is it a privilege of economic success? Is it a basic human right? We’re still asking.’’

Petosa will join George Annas and Dr. Michael Grodin, both of Boston University’s Department of Health Law, Bioethics, & Human Rights, and medicine and literature instructor Mary Annas in a conversation moderated by WGBH’s Phillip Martin following a matinee performance.

The event is free, but requires registration. E-mail play runs through Sept. 29 and tickets start at $28.

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