The Man with Two Faces

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1896, the medical encyclopedia Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine was published. Within the tome, was a description of one Edward Mordake.

He lived in complete seclusion, refusing the visits even of the members of his own family. He was a young man of fine attainments, a profound scholar, and a musician of rare ability. His figure was remarkable for its grace, and his face – that is to say, his natural face – was that of an Antinous. But upon the back of his head was another face…

Janus, the two-faced ancient Roman god
Janus, the two-faced ancient Roman god

The tale of Edward Mordake is mostly rumor and legend. His second face would supposedly react to Mordake’s emotional state; smiling when Edward was happy and frowning when sad. According to the legend, Edward claimed the face would whisper to him at night about things  “one would only speak about in hell”. He requested that the face be removed, but doctors at the time didn’t believe it to be possible. Frustrated and depressed, Edward committed suicide by poison.

Ignoring the historicity of the story, what about plausibility? There are actually two medical conditions that can lead to an extra face: diprosopus and craniopagus parasiticus. In the case of diprosopus (from Greek meaning “two face person”), features of the face are duplicated due to complications in the SHH protein (SHH, of course, stands for Sonic Hedgehog). That protein regulates how wide facial features grow to be, so with too much… they begin to duplicate. This is very different from craniopagus parasiticus which is actually a form of parasitic or conjoined twinning.

Cases of both have been observed through history, but unfortunately very few have survived beyond childhood. In one more recent case, a Chinese man had a secondary face successfully removed from his head. He lived most of his life in solitude, perhaps due to others’ superstition (but after surgeons were able to remove the extra head he managed to become friends with Bruce Lee). Though in Mordake’s day, such a feat would be impossible, today there is hope for those with more than one face.

Music: Concerto for 2 Violins in A minor by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by the Advent Chamber Orchestra

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