The “Queerest People”


The Munchkins represented the little people who worked for a living, the backbone of the community and the productive engines of society.

As a self-professed medical historian I particularly enjoy reading the first descriptions of syndromes.

For instance, the following first description of individuals with Down syndrome was provided by John Langdon Down in 1866. “A very large number of congenital idiots are typical Mongols. So marked is this, that when placed side by side, it is difficult to believe that the specimens compared are not children of the same parents. The number of idiots who arrange themselves around the Mongolian type is so great, and they present such a close resemblance to one another in mental power, that I shall describe an idiot member of this racial division, selected from the large number that have fallen under my observation. The hair is not black, as in the real Mongol, but of a brownish colour, straight and scanty. The face is flat and broad, and destitute of prominence. The cheeks are roundish, and extended laterally. The eyes are obliquely placed, and the internal canthi more than normally distant from one another. The palpebral fissure is very narrow. The forehead is wrinkled transversely from the constant assistance hich the levatores palpebrarum derive from the occipito-frontalis muscle in the opening of the eyes. The lips are large and thick with transverse fissures. The tongue is long, thick, and is much roughened. The nose is small. The skin has a slight dirty yellowish tinge, and is deficient in elasticity, giving the appearance of being too large for the body.”

And the classic description of Auguste Deter, the first patient diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease by Alois Alzheimer in 1901. “She sits on the bed with a helpless expression. What is your name? Auguste. Last name? Auguste.. What is your husband’s name? Auguste, I think. Your husband? Ah, my husband. She looks as if she didn’t understand the question. Are you married? To Auguste. Mrs. D? Yes, yes. Auguste D. How long have you been here? She seems to be trying to remember. Three weeks.What is this? I show her a pencil. A pen. At lunch she eats cauliflower and pork. Asked what she is eating she answers spinach.When objects are shown to her, she does not remember after a short time which objects have been shown.”

In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner described (through interviews with the father) a most fascinating five year old boy named Donald T. “He seems to be self-satisfied. He has no apparent affection when petted. He does not observe the fact that anyone comes or goes, and never seems glad to see father or mother or any playmate. He seems almost to draw into his shell and live within himself. We once secured a most attractive little boy of the same age from an orphanage and brought him home to spend the summer with Donald, but Donald has never asked him a question nor answered a question and has never romped with him in play. He seldom comes to anyone when called but has to be picked up and carried or led wherever he ought to go. In his second year he developed a mania for spinning blocks and pans and other round objects.” Kanner was describing the first case of autism.

But my favorite first description of a unique clinical manifestation was the 1900 description of not just a single individual, but of an entire cohort. “…she noticed coming down toward her a group of the queerest people she had ever seen. They were not as big as the grown folk she had always been used to; but neither were they very small. In fact, they seemed about as tall as Dorothy, who was a well-grown child for her age, although they were, so far as looks go, many years older.”

The “queerest people” were not only short of stature but only wore blue. Described by L. Frank Baum, they populated Munchkin Country and first appeared in the novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Of course we are referring to The Munchkins.

The Munchkins were best known from their depiction in the 1939 film version in which they are played by adult proportional dwarfs. They remain among the best recognized and best loved movie characters of all time. While their screen time was limited, about six minutes, their role of sending Dorothy off on her adventure to Oz greatly influenced the tone of the film.

I couldn’t resist looking at them as an anthropologist and could only imagine from a physician’s perspective what the medical and nursing staff thought when they all showed up for their pre-production physicals at the MGM Studios lot in Culver City, California.

Records reveal that there were 124 Munchkins, but that was not enough to satisfy the director, so the studio supplemented the number of “little people” by hiring children. Many of the Munchkin actors were from Europe with a variety of European accents. Since the story was supposed to be based in Kansas, MGM didn’t want their voices to be heard. In fact the Munchkins sang while on the set during the filming but the studio muted most of their voices. The movie was filmed just as World War II erupted in Europe and the Nazi persecution of Jews, people with disabilities and many others was beginning to get noticed. Many of the Munchkins used their role in the movie to avoid going back to Europe to be subjected to Nazi cruelty against the “disabled” and “improper beings.”

Munchkin salaries reflected society’s practice of inequality towards the “queerest people,” and they were given a salary of fifty dollars per week. It represented only half of MGM’s usual compensation for performer compensation. An interesting comparison was the salary paid to Toto, the dog.Toto received $125 per week.

Author Baum never revealed where the name “Munchkin” came from. Best bets are either from the German word for “manikin” or “little figure,” or from “Munchner Kindl,” the emblem of the Bavarian city of Munich. This symbol was often painted on beer steins and it is believed that Baum might have been struck by it as a youngster.

The Munchkins were acknowledged for their influence to both the film and popular culture by receiving their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. Only seven of the original Munchkins were present. According to an article at the time, “Those who attended wore replicas of their costumes and arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, and they walked on a yellow carpet symbolizing the yellow Brick Road from the movie.”

Of particular interest to Munchkinphiles is what they represented. One of Baum’s aims in writing “The Wizard of Oz” was a desire to curtail the nightmarish aspects (witches baking little children) of the traditional fairytale by providing a joyish tale for little children. The Munchkins represented the little people who worked for a living, the backbone of the community and the productive engines of society.

It’s a powerful message for the disability community and our culture. Little people, “Munchkins,” a group of individuals with the commonality of being off the normal grid, outliers of standard deviations, are indeed the backbone of our society. Readers of Exceptional Parentmagazine have known that since they found themselves as exceptional parents.

I plan to stop off on my way home tonight at Dunkin’ Donuts, purchase a box of their namesake and celebrate their influence on our evolving sensibilities.•

Afterword: Ruth Robinson Duccini died on January 16, 2014, the last female

Leave a Reply