The International Museum of Surgical Science occupies a 106-year-old French-style mansion at 1516 N. Lake Shore Drive, on the Gold Coast. Inside are terrifying artifacts of pre-modern medicine: a 16th Century Austrian amputation saw, an iron lung for polio patients, ancient Peruvian skulls with holes drilled in the crania.

The most grotesque exhibit, though, may be the bust on the landing between the second and third floors. It’s a bust of Maurice Tillet, a professional wrestler known as The French Angel. All its features are distended beyond normal human scale: the forehead beetles, the nose protrudes, the jaw juts, the ears are elephantine. It’s a face that may be familiar to fans of a popular cartoon movie franchise. More on that later. First, the story of how Tillet came to look the way he did, how he came to Chicago, and why he is memorialized here.

Tillet was born in Russia in 1903, to French parents who took him home when the Russian Revolution broke out. At the time, Tillet was a conventional-looking teenager. When he was 17, though, Tillet began to display the effects of acromegaly, a disorder in which the pituitary gland releases excess growth hormone. Each hand grew so large it could hold and shuffle three decks of cards. His head swelled to nearly twice the size of even the heartiest man: from ear to ear, it measured 7.13 inches.

Tillet served six years as an engineer in the French Navy, and earned a law degree, but felt that his freakishly large face made a legal career impossible. He tried the entertainment business, hoping his looks would win him movie roles. It doesn’t take a handsome face to become a star, just a memorable one. It helps to be at one end or the other of the bell curve of beauty. He had a bit role as a bar patron in one well-known film: Princess Tam Tam, starring Josephine Baker.

“After returning to civilian life, I attempted a variety of jobs, but I didn’t have much luck,” Tillet recalled. “I decided to go to the theater one day after watching a friend do it. I worked on many movies, but except for two or three, I was never given a significant role. Success in the film industry requires a lot of good fortune, money and talent. I was lacking in a little bit of everything.”

In 1936, Lithuanian wrestler Karl Pojello visited Paris, where he spotted Tillet working as a doorman for a movie studio. That face, he thought, belonged in the ring. Crowds would pay to see a villain who looked like a remnant of prehistoric humanity. The two men conversed in Russian. Pojello was excited to learn that Tillet, who was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 276 pounds, had won several amateur wrestling tournaments. Tillet, though, knew nothing of the mayhem required for professional wrestling. Pojello took him to a gym and trained him.

“We battled for 25 minutes while undressed in the gym,” Tillet said. “Karl, he beat me in two minutes with ease. I had no prior knowledge of catch-as-catch-can wrestling at the time. Greco-Roman custom forbade touching the legs. Greco-Roman is all I knew about wrestling.”

The saying goes that biology is destiny, and so this educated, cultured man, who spoke several languages, began a career as “The Ugliest Man in Wrestling.” Pojello taught Tillet to subdue his opponents with a bear hug. In Nottingham, England, where 20,000 fans paid to see the face of the wrestler billed as “The Angel” — his mother’s nickname for her son. In Manchester, 30,000 stampeded the gate.

After World War II broke out, Pojello and Tillet sailed for the United States, where they would live and perform for the rest of their lives. Tillet’s first match was at the Boston Garden, where he wrestled and defeated Luigi Bacigalupi, two out of three falls. Before entering the ring, he ran through the crowd, roaring like the Neanderthal he was said to resemble. Afterward, his head was measured by a team of Harvard scientists.

Tillett was one of the most popular wrestlers of the early 1940s, earning $1,000 a match. Wrestling from coast to coast, he was undefeated for nearly two years, and held the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship. Pojello and Tillett made Chicago their home base, using their winnings to buy a mansion (which still stands) at 726 W. Garfield Blvd. They lived in adjoining rooms and rented out the rest of the house to boarders.

By the time Tillet reached his mid-40s, his health began to decline, as a result of his acromegaly. He was no longer a big draw on the wrestling circuit, but he was a recognizable face around Chicago. In 1949, a Tribune sportswriter spotted Tillet in Mike Fritzel’s cafe at State and Lake streets. The columnist described him as “an apelike creature whose face was so out of focus it could have escaped from the Fritzel television set,” but then went on to call him “a gentle soul who only makes like Boris Karloff for wrestling wages. Formerly a school teacher in France, Tillet has a mind which soars to the higher planes, leaving his face on a Cro-Magnon cave floor. He is highly sensitive and has been known to shed the same sympathetic tears over a dying Marguerite in Faust as he does over cauliflowering an opponent’s ear.”

In 1950, Louis Linck, a sculptor who, like Tillet, had emigrated to Chicago from France, fashioned the bust now on display at the Museum of Surgical Science, dedicating it to “my old friend, Maurice (The Angel) Tillet.” (Linck also worked on many of the sculptures in the museum’s Hall of Immortals, including Hippocrates, Joseph Lister, Marie Curie, and Wilhelm Rontgen.)

Pojello died of lung cancer in 1954. Tillet, whose acromegaly had enlarged his heart, suffered a heart attack after learning of his manager’s death. The two men are buried together in the Lithuanian National Cemetery in Justice, under a marker inscribed “Friends Whom Even Death Couldn’t Part.” Tillet’s face appears on the tombstone.

Tillet’s face may still live on after his death, too. The story goes that animators from the DreamWorks studio saw his death mask at the York Barbell Museum in Pennsylvania, and used it as the inspiration for Shrek. There certainly is a resemblance: the oversized head, the broad nose, the wide mouth. If that story is true, Tillet’s looks finally did make him a movie star.