A History of Conjoined Twins

Conjoined twins have captured the public’s interest throughout history, signifying good or bad omens, religious significant, or simple curiosity to different cultures.

Peru’s ancient Moche civilization depicted conjoined twins in pottery as early as the year 300. Central American civilizations depicted conjoined twins in paintings and figurines, most with proportions too accurate to have been depictions of imagined “monsters.”

Moche Pottery from 300 C.E. Larco Museum collection online at http://losmochicas.perucultural.org.pe/.

In 942, the earliest documented conjoined twins traveled from Armenia to Constantinople for medical treatment; it is unknown whether they were successfully separated.

The ” Biddenden Maids” were Eliza and Mary Chulkhust, supposedly conjoined twins born in England around 1100. Their images have been printed on cakes given to the poor in Biddenden, England for the past few centuries, but historians have concluded that the actual sisters were mythical. However, their images are still popular.

Conjoined sisters in the Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated Bible published in 1493. Beloit College's Nuremberg Chronicle guide is found online at http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg/inside/about/index.htm.

By the 19th Century (the era of Chang and Eng), conjoined twin were a curiosity and form of entertainment. Millie and Christine McCoy were born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851. They were sold to a showman who taught them to sing and dubbed them the “Two-Headed Nightingale,” and they traveled with the Barnum Circus until their deaths in 1912.

Millie and Christine McCoy. Found in Biographical Sketch of Millie Christine, the Carolina Twin. Documenting the American South (UNC-CH Library), online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/carolinatwin/carolinatwin.html

— Lily Roberts


What would have happened to Chang and Eng?

As this article from the May 15th News and Observer makes clear, the story of Chang and Eng will never really go away. Many accounts about the twins, both before and after their deaths, stress their incredible unity and desire to be together, even when they were fighting or at odds.

But what if they were just born at the right time? Given the small amount of tissue and organ matter that the twins actually shared, if born even a hundred years later they would have been easily separated. Most conjoined twins born in modern times can be separated. Depending on the point of separation, there are often complications. If they are joined at the head, for example, or if they share vital organs, often only one twin will survive.

Technical limitations aside, there are also ethical and religious considerations regarding separation. Some argue that the quality of life for twins is actually better together than separate, with Lori and George Schappell as an oft-cited example. Others bring up religious concerns -that it is “against God’s will” to change the way that children are born.

It is difficult to say for sure, then what would have happened to Chang and Eng had they been born in modern times. Technically, they probably could have been separated – but the voices of their parents and the community would have weighed heavily into that decision. It is a thread of history we may never be able to explore.

-Hetali Lodaya