The Girl Who Turned to Bone: My New Feature for the Atlantic

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Skeleton of Harry Eastlack at the Mutter Museum. Courtesy: © A.B. Shafritz et al., New Eng. J. Med., 335 (8): 555-61, 1996, Source: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/news_releases/apr06/briefing210406.htm

Over the past year or so I’ve gotten to know some extraordinary people. They were born with a single mutation to a single gene that caused them to grow a second skeleton. Their condition, called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, affects only one person out of every two million. If you traveled across the entire the United States and gathered everyone with the condition, you could fit them all comfortably on a single Greyhound bus.

I was inspired to meet them on a visit to Philadelphia last summer. The Mutter Museum, housed at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, is a collection of medical specimens of the sort you will see nowhere else in the United States. You feel an alternation of fear and exaltation at all the ways that the human body can be transformed. In one corner of the museum was the skeleton of a man named Harry Eastlack, who asked that his body be donated to science so that his disorder might someday be understood.

Looking at his skeleton, I wondered how on Earth something like this could happen, and what on Earth it was like to experience something like this. The result is the longest feature I’ve written in some time, which appears in the June issue of the Atlantic. You can read it here.