18th century, disabled history, DisHist80objects, enlightenment, medical history

DisHist in 80 Objects: 3. Deformity An Essay by William Hay Esq.


When I have thus anatomised myself, I hope my heart will be found untainted, and my intentions honest and sincere.”(p.3)

So expresses William Hay at the start of his Deformity: An Essay. A milestone in the history of disability, it was mostly absent in historiography until recently. It is now acknowledged as ground-breaking with Helen Deutsch commenting that he was the first writer in English literature to “conceptualise and articulate physical disability as a personal identity”, James Kavan saying he brings Enlightenment disability to light and David Turner remarking his work was a landmark publication. This work uses the contemporary terms that Hay and his time would have known.

Written in 1754, it is the first person personal account of the Seaford MP William Hay’s life as a man with a hunchback. The work engages with the history of ideas, as Hay mimics the style of Montaigne then refutes Enlightenment theories of beauty and deformity penned by those such as Francis Bacon. In a time when a person’s appearance was believed to be a window to their soul, and consequently physical disabilities and deformities seen as signals of immorality, Hay argues that he deserves to be treated as human. That he is not a “complete monster” ,but instead a “rational creature” deserving of dignity.

Hay sheds light on the physical impact of his disability while setting it within a wholly 18th century context. “The Human frame being warped and disproportioned is lessened in strength and activity and rendered less fit for its functions”, He concedes. He wished he could have a machine like Scarron’s which took off hats, except to help him buckle his shoes or take things off the ground. Something he “can scarce do without kneeling”. His impacted mobility meant he couldn’t play the Georgian gentleman that his upper class status called for, and so if a lady dropped her fan or glove, he had to ignore it as he could not bend his body and could fall back due to the ill place of his “centre of gravity”. From being unable to reach things hanging within the reach of others to being “in danger of being trampled upon or stifled in a crowd”, Hay attests to the manner in which such “inconveniences” attend “a figure like mine”. Through sections like this we get a sense of how alienating and difficult navigating Georgian London and Sussex as a disabled person must have been.

William Hay also alerts us to the ableism rampant in his time. As a man of the Enlightenment, Hay was, as Kathleen James-Cavan notes, alive during “a pivotal time in disability history when empiricism competed with superstition to account for human, physical differences”. Roger Lund even suggests that deformity challenged Enlightenment ideas about humanity. Old ideas from areas like religion thus melded with the New Science to define the bodies and minds of those like Hay. Additionally, Jest books, Simon Dickie notes, delighted in jokes about groups with physical differences like those with dwarfism and hunchbacks. There was a “sheer callousness” and “frank delight” in laughing at visible deformities and disabilities.


From the Renaissance onwards, books on human generation, and its variety, grew ever popular. One of the biggest examples was Ambroise Pare’s 1573 book Des Monstres et Prodiges/Of Monsters and Prodigies which discusses the traditional causes of “monsters”, really just children with physical disabilities or deformities, alongside quasi-science explanations. A deformed child could be caused by God or demons sending messages to humanity, like the monster of Ravenna, because a mother stared at something shocking and maternal impression stamped the experience on the child’s appearance, because of “the smallness of the womb” , “indecent posture of the mother” or “accidental illness”. A 1569 translation of Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires Prodigieuses, said deformed people were monsters born “in contempt of nature as to the perpetual infamy and grief of their parents” and acted as the “scrouge of the ire of God”.

The Early Modern theorising about God’s design and of beauty was challenged by the bodies of those like Hay. Nicolas Andry’s Orthopaedia claimed ugly bodies contradicted “the intention of the creator” while Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690 defined humans by their shape, “the leading quality, that seems more to determine that species, than a faculty of reasoning”. Chambers Cyclopaedia in 1728 defined deformity as “a displeasing or painful idea excited in the mind on occasion of some object, which wants of the uniformity that constitutes beauty”. William Hogarth even created a formula for explaining beauty and ugliness via criteria like fitness, variety, uniformity, simplicity and quantity. Hay lived in a period that defined his body as monstrous, portentous, ugly and just plain wrong. The Enlightenment man was perfect and Hay was not.

Then there is Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay Of Deformity which Hay specifically highlights in his writing as a text he is trying to dispute. Bacon talks about the mind and body of deformed people, stating “where nature erreth in the one she ventureth in the other”. A deformed person must be evil and equally imperfect in mind. He claimed they were consequently “void of natural affection”, something Hay attacks, joking that if true, all deformed people must “complete monster[s]”

The impact of such ableist discourse on Hay’s own life comes through in his words on many occasions. Hay notes the uncomfortable visibility of his condition stating “deformity is visible to every eye”. His childhood was one where his parents tried “every art to correct the errors of nature” before giving up and attempting to conceal them. This left the MP “ashamed of my person”, instead of arming him with “true fortitude”, and was an attitude that took years to overcome. He describes how lone people ignored his condition, but as crowds grew so did “insolence”. Ridicule and vulgar contempt arose in such situations as people, even “the lower sort” he sniffs, saw the “less beautiful” in him and so their pride was gratified by such foils, and superiority prompted laughter from them. Lastly William Hay asserts how truly lacking in privilege he and other deformed people are. They are “despised, ridiculed and ill-treated”, if poor are cut off from “many professions and employments” and while having a “good person is a letter of recommendation, deformity must be an obstruction in the way to favour” meaning that deformed people “set out in the world to a disadvantage and they must first surmount the prejudices of mankind before they can be upon a par with others”. Though emphasising this extensive set of difficulties, Hay does not leave matters at that. He rips apart Bacon’s ideas in his case for the worth of disabled deformed people.

Firstly they are not against God. They are part of God’s plan. “All in me is Nature”, Hay asserts, and God will not allow men to “mend” “his Works”. Instead he stands among the “range of human variety” from the lame to blind, deaf to dumb.

Hay then suggests that deformity need not be seen as “prejudicial to health” for it can be “an advantage” as it results in a specific path for people like himself. A man with a deformed body has “the improvement of mind” as his “province” and his business only depends on “ingenuity”. If he can’t be a dancing master, he can be a school master, if not an actor then a playwright, if not a soldier on campaign then someone advising operations behind the scenes. By coming at Georgian society from this angle, Hay suggests they can be “upon a par” with others.

In a lengthy section of the essay Hay shows how Bacon is wrong, and as he describes in the beginning, how his heart is “untainted” despite Of Deformity’s claims. The “universal benevolence” that Bacon says Hay and others lack, is something he exhibits in spades, discussing his sensations over many pages. Bacon’s claim that “deformed persons are extremelly bold” when ridiculed or attacked is just him including the undignified reactions of poorer deformed people, the upper class Hay suggests. Hay concludes that if deformed individuals assert a dignified attitude without “frailties” exhibited, they can prove Bacon wrong. “Ridicule and contempt” are consequences of deformity, and so deformed persons should just “bear it like a man; forgive it as a Christian and consider it as a philosopher”. In that way the deformed like Hay can triumph over the ableist beliefs of their day. Hay as a white upper class man exhibits privilege in his description of class, ignoring of women with such conditions and how he says deformed people should react. While today these statements might seem problematic to us, it was Hay’s particular way of finding a way to live as a disabled man in his time.

Hay describes the text as anatomising him and ends it saying his “contemptible carcass” shall be given to science, something not unbecoming “a rational creature”. While those like Charles Bryne, “The Irish Giant”, fought to stop their body from falling into the hands of “resurrection men” surgeons and anatomists for study then display, William Hay gave clear consent for his body to be used by science to explain and understand him.

In under a hundred pages, William Hay Esq, does something critical for disabled history. He writes himself into history, literature and into being. Through him we see how life as a physically disabled person in Georgian England felt. Hay says to us today, Here I am. Here I was. We should listen to him and read this vital object of disabled history.

William Hay and sons, The Life and Works of William Hay (London, 1794)


William Hay Esq, Deformity: An Essay, (London: For R & J Dodsley, Sold by M Cooper, [1774]1775 3rd edition), p. 2-1-4,6-7,9,13,18-19,21-22, 28-30,34,40-41,53,55,59,73,75

Anne- Noelle Pinnegar, “Pioneering ‘Polite’ Models of Disability in Eighteenth-Century London: Matthias Buchinger’s Self-Portrait (1724) and William Hay’s Deformity: An Essay (1754)”, pp. 141-154

David M Turner, Disability in Eighteenth Century England, (Routledge,2017),p.99

Helen Deutsch, “The Body’s Moments: Visible Disability, the Essay and the Limits of Sympathy”, Prose Studies, 27 (1.2) (2005), pp. 11-26 ,p. 11
Jason S. Farr, “Sharp Minds / Twisted Bodies: Intellect, Disability, and Female Education in Frances Burney’s “Camilla”, The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 55, No. 1 (SPRING 2014), pp. 1-17 ,p.5

Kathleen James-Cavan (2005) “[A]ll in Me is Nature”, Prose Studies, 27:1-2, pp. 27-38

Roger Lund, “Laughing at Cripples: Ridicule, Deformity and the Argument from Design”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Fall, 2005), pp. 91-114

Simon Dickie, “Hilarity and Pitilessness in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: English Jestbook Humor,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37.1 (2003), pp. 1-22

Wikisource contributors, ‘The Essays of Francis Bacon/XLIV Of Deformity’, Wikisource , 30 January 2016, 01:32 UTC, <https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php…&gt; [accessed 2 September 2018]

disabled history, DisHist80objects, medical history, Uncategorized

DisHist In 80 Objects- 2. Tomb 47 at Hierakonpolis/Nekhen.


He was buried millennia ago with all the dignity his position warranted. He had dwarfism and was close to his ruler. Over 5000 years ago in the Egyptian Pre-dynastic Naqada IC-IIA Period, before Egypt was unified, a dwarf courtier lived and died before being buried with his lord at a graveyard in Hierakonpolis/Nekhen.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 14.53.07
Dwarf hieroglyphic illustrations by Nephiliskos on wikipedia.

Dwarfs were considered highly important individuals in Ancient Egyptian society. Known as Deneg/Daneg/Dag, they were portrayed realistically in art and represented in hieroglyphics via a small sideways man with visible dwarfism. They could be anything from a courtier or companion to a king to a scribe. There was also dwarf gods  like the important home deity Bes and forms of Ptah, god of craftsmen and architects. Dwarfs were believed to, through virtue of their dwarfism, have magical and divine qualities.

Hierakonpolis, where 47 was buried, has been undergoing excavations since 1979, which ever since have been slowly overturning our understanding of early civilisation in the area known as Egypt. What evidence like that of the many tombs at Hierakonpolis show is that this history of dwarf elite inclusion goes back even further than Egyptian unification. It goes deep into Egyptian pre-history. To the beginning of Egyptian societies full stop. Even before the Pharaohs and Pyramids, those like the occupant of Tomb 47 were important members of the Egyptian elites.

47’s grave is a wonderful and telling display of his status. His patron or ruler seems to have been the owner of Tomb 16. 47 was buried beneath the floor of a place of worship near 16, which was “an incredible privilege”, as those excavating the graveyard note at Hierakonpolis Online.

Of the 39 other people in 14 tombs who flanked 16 and likely were his court, 47’s exceptionality is also expressed by the fact he was the oldest at forty years of age. He lived a good life by his lord’s side and accompanied him beyond the veil of this world and into the next. 47’s importance even seems to have been immortalised in art. A flint figure found to the northwest is believed to depict a dwarf with bowed legs and short arms.

Egyptians with dwarfism would continue to be prized for thousands of years until the end of the pharaohs. They’d work a variety of jobs and roles, within and outside, the palaces of Egypt’s rulers. They’d be gods and men. Elite figures and outcasts. We will meet other dwarf individuals from Egypt as we travel through our 80 objects…Looking at the extent to which people with dwarfism were included in Egyptian society at all levels, and whether they experienced ableism.

Until then we should think of 47 who lived an almost unfathomably long time ago yet was accepted and treasured by his society.


“Skeletal Remains–HK6”, Archaeology Of Ancient Egypt, 2018 <http://anthropology.msu.edu/…/2…/10/09/skeletal-remains-hk6/&gt; [Accessed 30 July 2018].

“Hierakonpolis Online – HK6 – Elite Cemetery”, Hierakonpolis-Online.Org, 2018 <http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/…/ex…/hk6-elite-cemetery&gt; [Accessed 30 July 2018].

William R. Dawson, “Pygmies and dwarfs in ancient Egypt” ,Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 24, 1938, pp. 185–189.

Veronique Dasen, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Chahira Kozma, “Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt: Historical Review”, American Journal of Medical Genetics, (2006), 140A: pp. 303–311

disabled history, DisHist80objects, medical history

Disabled History in 80 Objects: 1. The Remains of Disabled Early Humans in Pre-History


We’re as old as humanity itself. Disabled people. From Homo Erectus, living two million years ago in Africa and Eurasia, Homo Heidelbergensis down to Homo Sapiens in Africa and Homo Neanderthalensis in Europe and Western Asia about 300,000 years ago, we humans despite our differences developed the compassion and skill to heal and care for disabled individuals with various conditions. A. Bonmati et al 2011 suggest its what unites all of the Homo genus. Life was often difficult and short, but despite this Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals alike helped keep the fragile spark of life alive in those who needed help to keep the flame kindled/flickering. Disabled history, as we’ll learn through each of our 80 objects, was often one of sorrow and pain, but it wasn’t always. If we can look back so far through pre-history’s darkness and see the faint light of compassion and care that enabled disabled individuals to survive in their dangerous world, then we should recognise today it is crucial to what it means for us to be human that we make society accessible for all. We have failed on so many occasions and even today people with varied conditions are excluded and don’t receive the care they require. But we can change this. As it’s at the core of who we have always been. Human history is irrevocably tied to disability and caring for those with them.

If you wish to discover the amazing story of early human relationships with disability and care then one name stands above the rest today: LORNA TILLEY. She has developed the study of this area into a “ bioarchaeology of care” model, detailed in her 2015 volume on this subject. Two branches to this care exist, she argues, first accommodation of the individual. This means they were accepted, tolerated and even treasured in their communities with their different pace and style of living accounted for. In nomadic and active pre-historic life this would have been crucial to their survival. The second part is direct support in which applied practical help and care is delivered to heal or ease suffering. Medicine of sorts would have been used as evidence of herbs, poplar, bitter plants and salicylic acid(active ingredient in Aspirin) show. Tilley has noted that she knows about “30 cases” in which care was needed to survive ,but that more are waiting to be described. For Tilley, destroying our flawed belief in how disabled people were treated by early Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals and others is “an emotional experience” full of “awe” as she and her fellow archaeologists attempt to tell these stories “with as much accuracy and humanity” as possible.

An article by Penny Spikins, Andrew Needham, Lorna Tilley and others recently argued that evidence for Neanderthal care and healthcare is widespread and part of their social context of strong pro-social bonds. While Davies and Underdown(2006) have asserted that “extensive intragroup care” would only have existed if the recipients provided a “valuable service” the reality is different. The people whose remains they looked at would have offered no overt benefit through their community caring for them, especially at the end of the person’s life, YET, the remains of the individuals show they received direct care and emotional support even as they died. They also add that the reason that archaeologists until recently had failed to find as many bones with such conditions present, is that most surviving Neanderthal bones are located in rock shelters which preserved them better ,but were only accessible by able-bodied agile Neanderthals. Let’s now meet some of our disabled predecessors.

Cranium 14: Learning/Cognitive Disabilities
There is a Homo Heidelbergensis child found in Sima de los Huesos, Spain, called Cranium 14, who lived 500,000 years ago. Their skull shows Craniosynostosis which would have caused mental and cognitive disabilities. The child was cared for and lived to 5-8 years.

La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1/Old Man of La Chapelle: Physical disabilities/chronic illness

La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1, or the Old Man of La Chapelle, was a Neanderthal male who died in his 20s-40s, a good age for a Neanderthal, around 50,000-60,000 years ago. He was found by Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie alongside L. Bardon in 1908. This “old” man was the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton found and was located in a limestone bedrock within a cave near La Chapelle-sux-Saints, France. Pierre Marcellin Boule’s reconstruction of him stereotyped Neanderthals for years to come by mistaking his disabled anatomy for the species character as a whole. He believed the individual’s severely curved spine showed that all Neanderthals had a stopped, slouching stance, bent knees, forward flexed hips and head that jutted forward. The man’s low vaulted cranium and brow ridge he saw as a sign of the species’ lack of intelligence. He even argued they had an opposable big toe(Old Man had none) to fit his theory of Neanderthal inferiority and brutishness. It would take until the 1950s when he was re-examined and other remains found for scientists to understand that Old Man was just an example of normal species variation, as in modern humans, who can have a range of disabilities and conditions that give them unique appearances.

Old Man’s disabilities had a significant impact on his life. He had extreme tooth loss, chronic gum disease, temporomandibular joint arthritis, severe osteoarthritis in his lower cervical and upper thoracic vertebrae and degeneration of vertebrae. He had osteoarthritis in both shoulder joints, a rib fracture, degeneration in a right foot joint and severe chronic degeneration osteomyelitis in his left hip. We can tell his teeth fell out over a decade before his death as bone had grown back along the gums. His care required direct support including fever management, help with hygiene, repositioning and manipulation during flare-ups of infection, and severe pain alongside accommodation such as providing suitable soft food and ensuring he wasn’t left behind when camp moved. His spine and upper body’s disabilities meant he couldn’t have been flexible and strong enough to help hunt or transport items while his lower body, the diseased left hip, worst of his conditions, would have caused significant pain and issues when using his left leg for weight-bearing, balance and mobility. As Spikins et all suggest though he could have processed food, made tools/clothes and done childcare. His localised and systemic infections in his last year would have stopped his ability to contribute ,but his care continued and he was buried with respect.

La Ferrassie 1: Physical disabilities/chronic illness

La Ferrassie 1(LF1) in La Ferrassie, France lived around 43,000-45,000 during a later point in the Upper Palaeolithic period. He was old at 40-55 when he died and was found by Louis Capitan and Denis Peyrony in 1909. His skull is the most complete Neanderthal example ever found. He had abscesses on the left of his lower jaw, osteoarthritic changes to his lower spine and right elbow joint, a healed fracture in his right femur and presence of an active systemic disease when he died. La Ferrassie seems to have been cared for at two points in life, first when he had a short-term disability caused by a fracture of the greater trochanter of the right femur which impacted leg movement and caused leg/hip pains. He would have needed support for two to three months, as Spikins, Tilley etc suggest. The second time was more serious and involved periostitis(swelling) on the surfaces of his bones. He was probably in the early stage of Hypertrophic Pulmonary Osteoarthropathy with his death taking 2-14 months. Symptoms would have include lethargy, fatigue, sleep problems, localised/general pains and discomforts, appetite and weight loss, fevers and more. Ferrassie would have been dependent on others for food, immobile, tired and in constant pain. Dedicated care would have been essential. His burial like his care was complex showing the compassion of his Neanderthal community.

Shanidar 1/Nandy: Physical and Sensory Disabilties/Chronic illness/Possible Amputation

Shanidar 1, nicknamed Nandy by his excavators, is an incredible Neanderthal individual whose discover in 1957 by Ralph Solecki began to change our views on Palaeolithic disability care. This male lived 45,000-35,0000 years ago and was around 50. He was buried with others in what is now Shanidar Cave, in the Erbil Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. A blow to the head in his youth damaged his left eye, maybe blinding him, and the part of the brain controlling his right side, so he developed a withered right arm and potential paralysis which would have crippled his left leg too. He might have had this limb amputated but it’s unclear if it was his condition or this procedure which made it so short. His healed fracture on his middle foot bones express his limp would have been even more significant, and as discovered in 2017 by Rosenberg, Trinkaus and Villotte, he was also deaf on top of this causing significant sensory deprivation. A man of his age with these symptoms would have needed significant accommodation and direct support and it seems he received it.

Romito 2: Dwarfism

The examination of remains in Riparo del Romito, Calabria, Southern Italy show an Epigravettian(10,000-21000 years old) burial, with parietal art, of different people. Romino 2, a boy who died around seventeen, is especially important. His skeleton shows that he had a (rare even today) mesomelic form of dwarfism which would have been visible from birth and would not have impacted his intelligence or caused serious medical issues. His growth would have been severely impacted though with adult heights usually only around 3-4 ft and his elbow mobility would have been restricted. Romito 2 would have been able to look after himself ,but would have needed accommodation and acceptance, something he seems to have got. He lived to seventeen and his burial was in a social ritual centre signifying he and the others with him were socially important. As the next remains of someone with dwarfism are 5000 years more recent, Rominito 2 is the earliest person with dwarfism found so far.

Burial 9: Paralysis/ Physical Disability

In Vitenam’s Man Bac, the remains of a young man called Burial 9 shows an individual buried in a fetal position due to his fused vertebrae and brittle bones that left him hunched over. This was likely caused by Klippel-Feil syndrome, a congenital disorder, which paralysed him from the waist downwards, stopped use of his arms and would have made feeding and cleaning himself impossible. He lived ten years after the onset of his paralysis though and his remains show us that even severely paralysed individuals received compassionate care.

Windover Boy: Spina Bifida

A more recent individual found is a Homo Sapien boy who, 7500 years ago, lived and died in Archaic Florida. His remains at the Windover, Florida site show he lived until 15 years old while dealing with Spina Bifida. He also had malformed zygapophyses, severe infection of the right tibia and fibula, and atrophy of the long bones. Neural tube deficit would have caused sensory deprivation, loss of mobility, ulceration and infections. Other minor conditions would have impacted him too.

Although these disabled individuals lived so long before any of us, its incredible to learn how they would have navigated their world and know they were accepted and provided for, whether Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals or other. We’re going to see many different locations, objects and historical disabled individuals on our 80 stop journey, but starting like this makes it clear how disability has shaped communities and civilisations since pre-history. Across the Homo genus. Being human is caring for and accommodating those with disabilities. It’s not excluding and making the world inaccessible for non-able-bodied or neurodivergent people.

Looking into the ancient past at these people we are taught a lesson about who we all are….and who we should be.

Vincenzo Formicola, “From the Sunghir Children to
the Romito Dwarf: Aspects of the Upper Paleolithic Funerary Landscape”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 48, No. 3 (June 2007), pp. 446-453

“Compassion For People With Disabilities Shown In Ancient Bones”, Wheelchair Accessibility Blog And Disability News, 2018 <https://www.amsvans.com/…/compassion-for-people-with-disab…/&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Penny Spikins, Andrew Needham and Lorna Tilley et al, “Calculated or caring? : Neanderthal healthcare in social context”, World Archaeology, ISSN 1470-1375

Mark Richardson, Cheating Death in Pre-History: Pathology, Trauma, Disability and Care During the Archaic Period in North Alabama, thesis, Master of Arts, University of Alabama, (2017)

Gizmodo.Com, 2018 <https://gizmodo.com/neanderthals-with-disabilities-survived…&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Jean-Jacques Hublin, “The Prehistory of Compassion”, PNAS, April 2009, 106 (16), pp. 6429-6430

“Ancient Bones Show That Caring For The Disabled Is As Old As Society Itself”, Medical Daily, 2018 <https://www.medicaldaily.com/ancient-bones-show-caring-disa…&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

D.N Dickel and G.H Doran, “Severe neural tube defect syndrome from the early archaic of Florida”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol.80, Issue 3, (November, 1989)

David W. Frayer et al, “Dwarfism in an Adolescent from the Italian late Upper Palaeolithic, Nature, Vol.330, (November,1987), pp.60-62

“Compassion For People With Disabilities Shown In Ancient Bones”, Wheelchair Accessibility Blog And Disability News, 2018 <https://www.amsvans.com/…/compassion-for-people-with-disab…/&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Gracia et al, “Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (2009)