That’s a question you might be asking as I promote my new historical medical thriller series, The Teragologist. What exactly IS a teratologist?
Teratology is the study of physiological abnormalities, whether congenital (such as birth defects) or developed at a later stage of an organism’s development. Some have genetic causes, others are caused by external agents called teratogens (chemicals, infection, radiation, etc.) and the majority are from causes unknown.
Today, society has matured enough that we treat people born with abnormalities with respect and sensitivity, but that wasn’t always the case. The word teratology is derived from the Greek word for “monster” or “wonder” and for most of human history, someone with deformities was regarded as such. Beginning in the 17th century, teratologists were focused on cataloging strange creatures and “monsters.”
The word “monster” has so many literal and metaphorical meanings that it fascinates me. Today, we reserve the term monster for someone who is evil, but my novel The Teratologist was born from the urge to explore all the meanings of the word, from the unfortunate people with abnormalities, to the supernatural monsters of lore, to evil psychopaths.
I was also interested in the idea that abnormalities are not necessarily a disadvantage. Let’s say having parapsychological abilities is a defect of sorts. An alteration in the brain that gives you the power of telepathy, being able to read others’ thoughts, could be seen as a beneficial trait. You’re a paranormal—beyond normal. Who says that’s bad?
Darryl Stockhurst, a main character from The Teratologist, has multiple abnormalities, many of which cause him great unhappiness. But he also is exceptionally strong and fast. And he has powers of telepathy and telekinesis. These qualities arguably make him better than a normal person.
People with abnormalities were called not just monsters, but also prodigies. And, of course, they were called freaks. Traveling freak shows were a staple of carnivals and circuses well into the 20th century, and that is how Joseph Merrick, exhibited as “The Elephant Man,” came to the attention of Dr. Frederick Treves in London. During America’s Gilded Age, when the of The Teratologist takes place, people with abnormalities were also the stars of theater-like establishments called dime museums. An 1891 editorial in The New York Times defends such exhibitions by claiming, “the desire of ordinary humanity to see the freaks of nature enables many unfortunate people to gain a comfortable livelihood.”
The Teratologist takes place at the turn of the 20th Century, when medical science was undergoing a revolution of modernization. A groundbreaking book was published in 1896, called Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle, that documents many cases of deformities from a purely medical perspective. This book is a constant companion of my protagonist Dr. Frank Follett as he researches abnormalities and tries to learn their causes.
Teratology didn’t reach maturity until the 1940s, when doctors showed that German measles during pregnancy caused birth defects, and certainly by the 1960s, when the drug thalidomide was proven to result in deformed babies. Nowadays, a teratologist is often employed as a researcher in toxicology, such as for pharmaceutical manufacturers.
At the time of The Teratologist, however, the field of teratology was attempting to break free of the shackles of ignorance and superstition that had restrained it for centuries. For Dr. Frank Follett, it’s also a vehicle for advocating social justice for the patients he studies.