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New Bond girl is a polydactyl

by Diane Mapes

A six-fingered spy seems a natural fit for a James Bond film, right in keeping with other odd-bodied henchmen such as the metal-mouthed giant Jaws or Tee Hee, the assassin with a hook for a hand. 

But the supernumerary appearing in the latest 007 adventure, “Quantum of Solace,” is no quirky Bond villain. She’s the new Bond beauty, Gemma Arterton, a 22-year-old British actress who was born with six fingers on each hand, a condition known as polydactyly.

Polydactyly, which runs in families, occurs in approximately 1 in 1,000 children and can involve either multiple toes or multiple fingers —everything from small skin buds next to the pinkie to two fingernails on one finger to fully functioning extra digits to fingers or thumbs split into a Y shape.

According to Dr. Terry Light, a hand surgeon and chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation at Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois, polydactyly and syndactyly, the webbing or fusing of fingers and toes, are the two most common congenital hand anomalies seen in the U.S.

“The limb bud starts off as a glob – like a paddle – that normally separates into five distinct rays or digits,” says Dr. Light. “But if that process of separation goes a step too far, then it separates into more packets, or one of the digits, such as the thumb, becomes separated yet again.”

In Arterton’s case, her extra digits weren’t fully formed fingers but rather soft bits of floppy tissue without any bone. They were removed when she was a child using a technique known as “tying.” Small scars still remain.

“The pediatrician will tie a little string around [the extra digit], almost the way you would an umbilical cord,” says Dr. Light. “It will wilt away and fall off in the first couple of days of life.”

In other cases, though, the surgery can be much more complicated.

In many forms of polydactyly, the condition is not simply an extra digit but an abnormal formation of several fingers. “When you have polydactyly of the thumb, the stuff that was going to make one thumb has been split into two packages and neither one is quite normal. If you remove one, the one that remains may be substantially inadequate.” As a result, part of both digits are used in reconstruction.

While polydactyly is now accepted as a relatively common birth defect — Arterton told Esquire she’s even a bit proud of her “little oddity” — people born with extra digits in the past didn’t always fare so well.

Folk beliefs from Eastern Europe and Africa sometimes associated six-fingered children (or anyone with any kind of “unnatural” feature) with witchcraft, or pegged them as the “exchanged child” of a witch, swapped out in the middle of the night while the mother was asleep.  Even Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, was thought of as a witch thanks to the sixth finger rumored to be on her right hand (some believe she merely had an extra fingernail on one of her fingers).

While the witchcraft accusations (and the occasional fear-fueled murder of a polydactyl child) have faded away over the centuries, a six-fingered stigma does seem to remain in popular fiction. In the Thomas Harris crime novels, serial killer Hannibal Lecter bore a sixth finger on his left hand; Count Rugen, the villain who murdered Inigo Montoya’s father in “The Princess Bride,” had six fingers on his right hand.

Still it’s not all bad news for polydactyls.

Six fingers are also said to a sign of good fortune or future prosperity. Sailors believe six-toed cats bring good luck. (The condition is also found in mice and chickens.) The association with good fortune, coupled with a lack of modern health care, may be one reason people outside the U.S. sometimes keep their extra fingers and toes.

“There are some cultures, such as in Latin America, where it’s regarded as a sign of good luck,” says Dr. Light. “Occasionally, I’ll run into an adult who’s retained an extra digit because it was thought to be a lucky omen. But usually in the U.S., most families would not see that as a positive.”

Relief pitcher and polydactyl Antonio “Six Fingers” Alfonseca, who hails from the Dominican Republic, says he considers his extra fingers and toes a blessing.

“I think God gave me more fingers and toes because He wanted to show that I’m special and that I will be special someday,” Alfonseca, also known as El Pulpo (The Octopus), told The Miami Herald in 2003.

Although Alfonseca’s pitching is not affected by his sixth finger — it  doesn’t actually touch the ball — he may be on to something.

The last team he pitched for, the Philadelphia Phillies, just won the World Series.