In 1980, David Lynch's masterpiece The Elephant Man was released. The film told the story of John Merrick, a tragically deformed yet charming and intelligent Englishman. When it hit the screens in 1980, it became a cult hit with sufferers of neurofibromatosis, the disease that the Elephant Man was thought to have had. Previously, it was though that he suffered from elephantiasis, a tropical disease causes by parasites in the bloodstream. However, it was suggested in 1979 that Merrick had Proteus syndrome or "Elephant Man's Disease", which causes abnormal, unchecked growth of bones, skin, and other systems. Fewer than 100 cases of Proteus have been recorded, while NF occurs in one in every 4,000 births. No condition has ever produced a degree of deformity equivalent to Merrick's.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester, England in 1862. He began growing disfiguring tumors before the age of two and his condition rapidly worsened, rendering one of his arms completely useless. Nevertheless, he was described as a wonderfully imaginative and intelligent boy. When Joseph was 11, his mother, Mary Jane, who was also physically handicapped, died, and Joseph's father remarried. Joseph's stepmother was not nearly as compassionate as his mother, and she even gave Joseph's father an ultimatum: "Joseph, or me." The young Joseph was cast out of the home and went to live at the Leicester Union Workhouse, and sold shoe polish on the street. However, he was constantly taunted by crowds of cruel children and soon moved on to another line of work.

Joseph's attempt to find traditional work were unsuccessful. Sick with bronchitis, and requiring surgery due to the intrusion of tumors into his throat, Joseph would very likely have died on the streets of Leicester, if it weren't for a compassionate showman named Tom Norman. Norman was the UK's answer to P.T. Barnum, and in fact received his nickname, "The Silver King", from the legendary American impresario because of the flashy silver jewelry he wore. Finding himself out of options and desperate for medical care, Merrick pitched himself to Sam Torr, another showman, who in turn introduced him to Norman. Norman paid for the operations Merrick required and helped Merrick become a successful museum freak. Under Norman's tutelage, Merrick accumulated 200 pounds, a large sum of money at the time. However, while touring Belgium, Merrick became separated from his guardian. Naive and sickly, he was a perfect target for robbers, and an unscrupulous Austrian (some say Italian) showman tricked him out of his small fortune.

Returning home from Belgium, Merrick was discovered in the Liverpool train station by Dr. Frederick Treves, who had previously seen Merrick on display in a medical school. Merrick was suffering from bronchitis and malnutrition, and Treves brought him back to the Whitechapel Hospital. The hospital became Merrick's permanent home; in his room he wrote poetry and prose and built models from card stock, his most famous being of the St. Philip's cathedral in Birmingham, which Merrick had never seen but constructed from studying architectural drawings. While living in the hospital, however, Merrick became a freak of a different sort. Treves exhibited him before classes of medical students, where he stood naked before leering crowds and was subjected to humiliating examinations. It became fashionable among members of London's upper class to visit the Elephant Man and mask their disgust as the conversed with the intelligent and well-spoken man. His visitors brought him all sorts of gifts, including a beautiful shaving set, which of course Merrick could not use because of the condition of his skin. He even struck up a pen-pal relationship with a famous actress of the day, who promised she would come see him, although she never did.

As Merrick became more comfortable with other people, he was taken on outings and even went to the theater. He shook hands with people and spoke to strangers, even women, with ease. Unfortunately, his newfound sense of self-respect came too late, and he died in his sleep in April 11, 1890. Rumors spread that the Elephant Man had been murdered, but Dr. Treves dispelled these, revealing the true cause of Merrick's death to be asphyxiation. He had attempted to sleep lying down, like a "normal person", and the weight of the tumors on his head and neck had crushed his trachea.