Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Tale of Conjoined Twins

Helen and Judith (Szőny, Hungary, 19th October 1701 – Presburg, Hungary, 8th February 1723)


Helen and Judith, conjoined twins

My tale today is another of medicine, brought to my door by Doctor Dillingham, who has recently returned from a sojourn to the continent. It is, however, also a story of family and of lives that ended before their time. When I first encountered a mention of the twins known simply as Helen and Judith, the story struck me as one that I wanted to share and off I went to find out more. I am pleased to present the tale here on the anniversary of their birth.

On the face of it, there should have been little of note to remark on in the birth of Helen and Judith, twin girls born in Szőny, Hungary. Although their surname is lost to history, they became knows simply as the Hungarian Sisters, and that nickname lasts to this day. There was indeed something most remarkable  about the sisters though, as far from being just another set of twins, they were conjoined twins. 

Medical science was baffled by the birth and swiftly decided that their circumstances should be blamed on their mother's overactive and somewhat excitable imagination during the pregnancy. This is quite a diagnosis, of course, but there the matter rested without further debate.

Helen was the first child to be born and within three hours Judith also emerged, joined to her sister at the coccyx. Just as she had been born first, so too was Helen reportedly the physically stronger of the two, as well as the more attractive and intelligent. Luckily the sisters were able to adapt to their very particular circumstances and soon their unusual condition became their livelihood.

From infancy into childhood, Helen and Judith were exhibited to excited crowds across Europe where they submitted to medical tests, enjoyed an education and enjoyed the society of artists, poets and others who found them utterly fascinating. However, this life was not to last and Judith suffered a debilitating stroke at the age of six that left her partially paralysed for the rest of her days. 

For three more years the girls continued to tour Europe until, at the age of nine, Judith's physical state could no longer endure such rigours. The girls were taken into the Convent of St. Ursula in Presburg, Hungary and here they remained, focusing on their faith.

The unusual story of the Hungarian Sisters was to end in 1723 when first Judith and then Helen fell ill with a fever. Throughout their entire lives, despite being conjoined, the girls did not share a sensation; they would experience neither feast nor hunger at the same time and lived as separate lives as they could yet, when their final moments came, they were almost simultaneous. Judith died early on 8th February and was followed within moments by her sister. The girls were laid to rest in the churchyard of the convent, the unusual lives of the Hungarian Sisters finally at an end.

5 comments:

  1. How sad!
    I am amazed how young they were at death, after looking at the picture which looks like much older women. I presume that's a deficiency of the artist rather than that they looked old before their time.
    Even sadder is that I suspect this conjoining could have been safely parted even with the medicine of the time, as there was plainly no sharing of spinal chords.

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    1. It is a very sad story; unfortunately there are so few pictures of the girls and all are similarly unsympathetic!

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  2. Sarah, I was going to say the very same thing! However, there were many superstitions about twins and given the area in which they lived the medical practice may not have been that advanced. Sepsis was a very real problem and cleanliness was not practiced in surgery at the time to any great degree. Surgeons were literally the "sawbones", the amputators of limbs so badly mangled that they could not be set. The rate of death from these procedures was extremely high.

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    1. It's so sad to think that they might have been parted even in the 18th century and that the operation was never carried out. I wonder if perhaps it was considered that the risk was simply too high, I'm not sure I would have fancied their chances.

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  3. Good point, Julia! I was thinking of the often quite amazing surgery carried out by naval surgeons of the time, under the most unsuitable conditions, but of course their cure for sepsis involved rum inside and out and a slap of hot tar on an open wound to cauterise it...

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