In terms of pathology, the girls born to Petrus Gonzales (1537-1618) were one in a billion, but not in the ‘one in a million’ sense we’ve come to associate with love songs or romantic poetry. Petrus’ daughters—Maddalena, Francesca and the youngest, Antonietta—were all afflicted with a then-unheard of genetic defect known as hypertrichosis universalis (or Ambras syndrome), which caused their bodies to be covered with abnormal amounts of hair in equally abnormal places, giving them an unmistakable Wolf man-like appearance.
One might expect that the girls—and their likewise afflicted father and brothers—would have been ostracized, yet they were welcomed in the courts of Europe and received considerable attention from physicians and nobles alike. In the book “The Marvelous Hairy Girls” (Yale University Press), author Merry Wiesner-Hanks—Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—recounts the Gonzales family’s wild and wooly story, and tries to imagine how they might have perceived the world in which they lived. Failure recently touched base with Wiesner-Hanks to ask her a handful of “Marvelous” questions, and in return received equally marvelous answers.
What led you to write a book about the Gonzales sisters?
I came across the portrait that is on the book’s cover [Portrait of Antonietta Gonzales] when I was looking for something else, and I simply could not forget Antonietta’s face. I decided I had to learn more about the hairy little girl in the pink brocade dress, and as I did, I realized that her story, and that of her family, was a fascinating one. The Gonzales family was unique, but also intertwined with many of the key developments of their era, including the explorations of discovery, the bloody religious wars, the artistic movements of the Renaissance, and the growth of science. Obviously, the sisters were completely different than other girls—they were “wonders of nature” and exotic “wild women”—but at the same time their lives were very much like those of other women; Maddalena married and had children (at least one of whom was hairy), Francesca remained unmarried, and Antonietta died young.
What is hypertrichosis universalis? How common is it?
Hypertrichosis universalis is a genetic disorder in which much of the body is covered with hair. It is very, very rare, with fewer than 100 cases documented worldwide. Petrus was the first documented case, and with six members of the Gonzales family afflicted, they make up a good share of the total number of known cases.
How were the Gonzales sisters—not to mention their father and brothers—treated in their time?
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, individuals with this condition were shown at circus side-shows as freaks—“Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy” was probably the most famous. But the Gonzales family was not publicly displayed. They lived at court and Petrus and the sisters’ two brothers were given minor positions, Petrus being an assistant bearer of the king’s bread. None of the sisters ever held an official position, but then again, very few women did. Of course, the Gonzales family was at court because of their hairiness, in a situation similar to that of court dwarves. They were not exactly free to come and go as they pleased, but they were not slaves. Their noble patrons dressed them in luxurious clothing, which further highlighted their double identities: human and beast, civilized and wild, courtier and monster.
What did sixteenth-century physicians make of their condition? Did they receive treatment?
Two physicians, Felix Platter in Basel and Ulisse Aldrovandi in Bologna, examined one of the girls and described her condition. Platter, who also examined one of her brothers, included his descriptions in a huge book of medical cases, along with those of other people who had unwanted hair. He provided a recipe for a gummy pitch that would help a man pull out hair from the face of a young woman he wanted to marry, but didn’t suggest this as a remedy for the Gonzales children.
For his part, Aldrovandi described the sister he examined as having “cheeks softer to touch than the rest of her body” and “skin similar to an unfledged bird,” but didn’t discuss any treatment. (Because hypertrichosis is a genetic condition, there is still no treatment available, other than shaving.)
In addition, both physicians had artists draw the children; Platter’s drawing is lost, but Aldrovandi’s was later included in a book of “monsters,” along with people and animals that had birth defects, strange creatures that really exist (like narwhals), and creatures believed to exist somewhere in the world. Nobles interested in oddities and the exotic had copies made of various portraits of the family, and the pictures ended up on castle walls or in the “cabinets of curiosities” natural scientists were assembling—the roots of today’s museums.
How would a young girl with this condition fare in the world today?
While I was writing the book, a young girl in Thailand with hypertrichosis, Supatra Sasuphan, was being featured in news stories. She seems to have a perfectly normal life—going to school and playing with her friends. So the actual treatment of children with this ailment is better than that imagined in recent fictional accounts, which include an episode of CSI and the 2006 movie Fur, about the legendary photographer Diane Arbus.
What would you like readers to take away from “The Marvelous Hairy Girls”?
I’d like them to gain a sense of the lives of the girls and the times in which they lived: What went through people’s minds when they saw them—did they think about hairy female saints (about which there were many stories), about werewolves, or about pets? Also, how did people fit them in to their understanding of the world? Why would an attractive young woman marry Petrus, and why would a man marry Maddalena? I hope readers find that the way people reacted was both different from today and yet oddly familiar.