Chang and Eng Bunker were conjoined twins from Siam (now Thailand). Their rare condition lead to the phrase “Siamese Twins,” and captured the attention of the world. The Bunker brothers were joined at the sternum; their livers were fused, but each man still operated independently. At the time, medical professionals assumed that the brothers were joined at the heart. Although it would not have been impossible to separate them, it was considered too dangerous.
The conjoined brothers were born in 1811 to humble Siamese beginnings. A British merchant, who essentially acted as their promoter, entered the Bunkers' lives in 1829. The twins went on a world tour with P.T. Barnum’s circus and were exhibited as an oddity. Their popularity in the 1830s grew as they gave lectures and demonstrations, and eventually “Siamese Twins” became a ubiquitous phrase describing their condition.
After visiting America on their tour, Chang and Eng settled down in North Carolina, became naturalized citizens, and adopted as typical an American life as could be expected of that period. They were quite successful, both financially and socially. The brothers Americanized their names, bought a plantation, owned slaves, and eventually married two sisters. At first, their arrangement was to share a bed for four, but the sisters’ arguing and bitterness towards one another lead to separate homes for each wife. Chang and Eng spent three days with one woman and three with the next. The brothers had 21 children total: Chang fathered 10 with his wife, and Eng fathered 11.
Modern medicine relies on two contradicting theories to explain the condition of conjoined twins. The older school of thought is fission: the fertilized egg splits partially in utero. The second theory is fusion: the fertilized egg separates completely in utero, but stem cells act to reconnect the twins. At 63 years old, Eng woke up to find his brother had died in the night. A doctor was called to perform emergency surgery, but Eng refused separation. He died three hours later with his wife and children by his side.