"Casts of the Teeth of Julia Pastrana
(1834-1860), the Nondescript"
Guest Post by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian
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
The second post from that
series, entitled "Curious Specimens From the Odontological
Collection," follows; you can view all posts in this series by
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
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.
Julia Pastrana, "the
nondescript", advertised for exhibition of the famous
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);
Julia Pastrana, a bearded
lady. Reproduction of a photograph by G. Wick.
Dental cast of the teeth
of Julia Pastrana, from the Odontological Collection; Photo
courtesy of the Hunterian Museum.
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