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After sustained campaign, Irish giant's bones may finally be released from London museum

Charles Byrne wanted to be buried at sea so scientists wouldn’t get their hands on his corpse. His skeleton has been on public display for decades.

A LONDON MUSEUM is considering the release of the remains of an 18th Century Irish Giant following sustained pressure from campaigners.

The skeleton of Charles Byrne, who hailed from Littlebridge in County Derry, has long been one of the centrepiece exhibits at the Hunterian Museum.

The museum, which is run by the Royal College of Surgeons, houses the collection of, the famous Scottish surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter.

During his lifetime Byrne toured the UK as a spectacle and newspaper reports from the time of his death indicate that he wished to be buried at sea out of fear that gravediggers would exhume his corpse and sell it to scientists.

ggiant-1 Source: BBC/Screengrab

When he did die, aged only 22, Byrne’s remains came into Hunter’s possession through a crooked undertaker and his skeleton has been on public display for much of the time since.

In recent years a campaign calling for the remains to be released and – true to Byrne’s wishes – to be buried at sea has built up considerable traction.

One of the campaign groups, Free Charles Byrne, created this short animation about the Derry man’s interesting life and death.

Source: freecharlesbyrne/YouTube

Various different campaigners have made appeals to the Hunterian but the museum has refused to change its stance on the matter and has routinely cited scientific reasons as the justification for keeping Byrne’s remains on display.

However the publication of an article in The Conversation, by law lecturer Dr Thomas Muinzer, caused the case to crop up again this week, and the museum has finally offered an altered position on the issue.

‘Groundbreaking statement’

In a development that has been warmly welcomed by campaigners, the Royal College of Surgeons has said that it is considering releasing Byrne’s remains.

In a statement a spokesperson for the Royal College of Surgeons said:

The Hunterian Museum will be closed until 2021 and Charles Byrne’s skeleton is not currently on display. The Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection will be discussing the matter during the period of closure of the Museum.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie Muinzer, who has campaigned for Byrne’s remains to be released since 2011, described the statement as a very positive development and added that it would be very hard for the museum to reopen with the skeleton on display.

“The Hunterian has previously not responded to any queries so their statement is a hugely positive step,” he said to TheJournal.ie.

This is a huge move on their part because their traditional approach has been to bury their heads in the sand. It’s a very unusual and groundbreaking statement.Given the negative coverage and given the growing strength of the campaign I feel it would be very difficult for them to reopen the display.

Who was Charles Byrne?

The Derry man, who was born in 1761, suffered from acromegalic gigantism which caused him to grow to nearly 8 feet tall.

After undergoing a rapid growth spurt during his teens he travelled to Britain where he achieved a degree of celebrity by exhibiting himself as a human curiosity.

Crowds of people flocked to see the Irish giant and he attracted regular attention from newspapers and managed to build up considerable savings.

giant-2 Source: BBC/Screengrab

However Byrne’s life took a turn for the worse when his entire fortune was stolen. He fell into a deep depression and his drinking habit worsened. He apparently contracted TB and died in 1783, aged only 22.

According to an 1841 edition of the The American Journal of the Medical Sciences Byrne’s death was recorded in the Annual Register Chronicle in June 1783 with the following note:

Died in Cockspur Street, Charing Cross, aged only 22, Mr. Charles Byrne, the famous Irish giant, whose death is said to have been precipitated by excessive drinking, to which he was always addicted, but more particularly, since his late loss of all his property, which he had simply invested in a single bank-note of 700 pounds (sterling).

“Mr B., in August 1780 measured 8 feet; that in 1782, he had gained two inches, and, after he was dead, he measured 8 feet 4 inches,” it added.

Stolen corpse

As Byrne’s body was being transported to the coast to be buried at sea an undertaker swapped his remains for dead weight and the highly prized corpse was handed over to John Hunter.

According to press reports at the time the funeral went ahead as scheduled with everybody seemingly unaware that Byrne’s remains were no longer in the coffin.

byrne-QE Queen Elizabeth viewing the skeleton of Charles Byrne in 1962. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

About four years later Hunter unveiled the giant skeleton. The famous surgeon’s collection passed into the hands of the College of Surgeons in 1799 and Byrne’s skeleton has been on public display for much of the intervening years.

It has played an important role in advancing research including helping to link acromegaly  – the condition where someone produces too much growth hormone – and the pituitary gland.

Campaigners have long argued that scientific reasons cannot be used as justification for, going against Bryne’s expressed wishes, and keeping his skeleton on display.

Muinzer said the argument holds no water as a full DNA profile of Byrne has already been recorded and an exact copy of his skeleton could be created.  There are also other patients with the same condition who have offered their remains to be used for scientific research.

If the museum is not willing to release the remains the law lecturer said it should ensure that they do not go on display when the Hunterian reopens.

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Ceimin Burke

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