Anatomical Account of the Elephant Accidentally Burnt

Maria Alexandrescu, Andrew Checcia, Sophie Seeholzer

In seventeenth-century Britain, elephants were exotic and rare animals that the majority of the population had never laid their eyes on. The public thought of them as almost mythological creatures — things only seen in ancient texts or drawings. So enterprising colonials found they could tour them around the British Isles as a part of circus acts to attract paying spectators. One of those performance elephants is the concern of this source, which provides an account of the accidental death of the elephant in a fire while being shipped from England to Ireland. 

The burned specimen was a young, male Asian elephant brought on East India Company Ships from India to Whitefriars, London on July 3rd, 1675. The elephant’s shipping was paid for by a Mr. Wilkins who displayed the elephant in a booth near the Custom House on Parliament Street for a price of three shillings. The elephant was described as “scarcely tractable and, according to his keepers, would ‘punch either man or beast that anger’d him, and came within his reach with his trunk’.” 

The accident occurred the night of Friday June 17, 1681 at around three in the morning when the wooden booth housing the elephant caught fire. The elephant was burned alive. Catching wind of the freak accident, onlookers flocked to the scene, with some even attempting to steal parts of the charred animal. Determined not to lose business, Mr. Wilkins decided to preserve the skeleton of the elephant for another display. To this end, he hired a troop of musketeers to guard the elephant’s corpse. 

At the news of the dead elephant, Dr. Allan Mullen, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a member of The Royal Society, also rushed to the scene, as he was extremely interested in elephant anatomy. He wanted to clinically study the elephant corpse, so he convinced Mr. Wilkins to wait for a proper team to arrive before they started the dissection. To help him dissect the elephant, Mullen worked with a team of butchers who helped disjoint the elephant by candlelight, taking care to remove the burnt parts in favor of the preserved majority (5-6). But since these butchers were not medically trained to dissect and preserve organs, they cut and extracted parts of the animal incorrectly. However, Dr. Mullen was still able to weigh, measure, and log everything (including human error) — comparing certain organs to those found in humans, dogs, horses, boars, and other animals. He organized his examination in layers, starting from the epidermis, moving onto appendages, and concluding on organs (with a focus on the eyes). His notes and analysis during the process also interweave commentary on the animal’s presumed behavior and the findings of other scientists. 

The epidermis or cuticula (a thin, outer layer, usually of a horny composition) was “covered all over with a strange sort of scab, in any places resembling old warts, deeply jagge’d, and the carnies Fibers of the muscles of beef, when much boiled, and transversely cut, but of a dirty tawny color” (7). The hair is covered in a thin membrane that was separated from the hair in the fire (8-9). He talks about a type of urinous salt that induces excretion on the skin and prevents disease and he also likens it to a kind of salt on a marine animal. There is a little presence of fat (13). The idea of elephants coming from marine animals is constant in his analysis (a significant scientific discovery at the time) (11). He estimates that elephants produce 93 liters of sweat a day. Unlike other land mammals, the elephant has no pleural cavity (the fluid-filled space between the lungs and chest walls). In recent years, zoologists have suggested that this is because the elephant evolved from an aquatic mammal, such as the African dugong, or sea cow (Isaac, Mullen 23).

Furthermore, Mullen weighs and measures the head, neck, and legs. Mullen estimates the elephant’s volume of blood, measures the internal organs, and all 22.8 meters of gut. He also dismisses the trunk as “merely a nose prolonged” and analyzes the teeth and tusks (14). He is “deceived” by the testicles (which are the wrong shape and size) only to realize that he is looking at the prostate (15). The testes were displaced because the butchers cut them off and placed them in the wrong area (14-5). He goes on to discuss the elephant is an animal that urinates backwards (15-6). He then stumbles upon two large and spongy pear-shaped organs that he realizes are the testes: “I found the testes which were not contained in the scrotum or capsula, but lay in the perinewn, close joined on either side of the penis” (16). He does not weigh them and concludes that “they were not suitable to other parts of the body” (16-17).

The stomach of the elephant is similar to the stomach of a horse and a monstrously big colon (18-9). Mullen is curious to taste the dark-green bilious secretions he finds in the ductus but decides not to (23). He goes on to explain the size, location, and weight of the elephant’s internal organs: kidneys, spleen, liver, pancreas etc. (19-24). He doesn’t find anything particularly different or outstanding in this examination. Mullen references Galen of Pergamum (a 2nd century Greek Physician who dissected the heart of an elephant and whose findings were ultimately replaced by Mullen’s own findings) (Nutton, Mullen 28-30). He writes that he “could not find the bone in the heart which Galen says he found” (Isaac). He also puzzles over how elephants can shoot out their trunks so rapidly and speculates about why they fear mice (Mullen 31-32). He describes the skull and brain and how the cerebellum (section of the brain that coordinates sensory input with muscular responses) was the size of a man’s (Britannica, Mullen 36). He dedicates a whole separate section to the eyes. He likens the eye of an elephant to that of a sheep, ox, and fish (49). Finally, he dissects the eye, noting the optic nerve, retina, the dilation of the pupil, and the coating on their eyes (50-4). 

Though the 1681 burning of the elephant was no doubt tragic, there came some good out of it in the form of Allan Mullen’s anatomy of the elephant. His examination was so accurate that his descriptions are cited to this day by writers and anatomists. 

Bibliography

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Cerebellum”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Feb. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/science/cerebellum. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Isaac, Susan. “An Unlucky Elephant: an Anatomical Account of the Elephant Accidentally Burnt in Dublin, on Fryday, June 17. in the Year 1681 – Allen Mullen (1682).” Royal College of Surgeons, Royal College of Surgeons, 20 Apr. 2018, www.rcseng.ac.uk/library-and-publications/library/blog/an-unlucky-elephant/#:~:text=Susan%20Isaac-,An%20anatomical%20account%20of%20the%20elephant%20accidentally%20burnt%20in%20Dublin,the%20East%20India%20Company%20ships.&text=In%201681%2C%20a%20showman%20called,took%20the%20elephant%20to%20Ireland. 

Mullen, Allen, et al. “An Anatomical Account of the Elephant Accidentally Burnt in Dublin, on Fryday, June 17, in the Year 1681.” C.1 – An Anatomical Account of the Elephant Accidentally Burnt in Dublin, on Fryday, June 17, in the Year 1681 : Sam. Smith, 1 Jan. 1682, www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/193642#page/10/mode/1up. 

Nutton, Vivian. “Galen”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jan. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Galen. Accessed 15 May 2021.

PLUMB, CHRISTOPHER. “‘Strange and Wonderful’: Encountering the Elephant in Britain, 1675-1830.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, 2010, pp. 525–543., doi:10.1111/j.1754-0208.2010.00321.x.

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