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public display

Irish giant's bones will stay at London museum - but he wanted to be buried at sea

The skeleton of Charles Byrne is on display in a museum dedicated to the surgeon who acquired his remains.

A MUSEUM IN London that has come in for criticism for continuing to display the remains of an 18th Century Irish giant to the public has said it has no plans to remove the exhibit, ahead of a planned refurbishment.

The Hunterian Museum, which is run by the Royal College of Surgeons, has been asked by campaigners to respect the wishes of Charles Byrne and allow his skeleton to be released and buried at sea.

But the museum – which houses the collection of the John Hunter, the surgeon and anatomist who acquired Byrne’s body after his death aged 22 in 1783 – has insisted that the educational and research benefits of keeping Byrne’s remains outweighs the benefits of allowing a sea burial, insisting that there is no direct evidence of his burial wishes.

ch1 BBC / Screengrab BBC / Screengrab / Screengrab

Who was Charles Byrne? 

Born in Derry, Byrne entered a growth spurt in his early teens, and – after gaining some local notoriety – set off with a friend across the Irish Sea to seek fame and fortune by exhibiting himself as a human curiosity.

“There are some great accounts in the papers from the time of him in Edinburgh lighting his pipes from the lamps in the streets, because he was so tall,” Dr Thomas Muinzer, a lecturer at the University of Stirling who has researched Byrne’s life, said.

Now standing at seven feet seven inches tall, Byrne’s celebrity grew – and he attracted regular attention from the news media of the time. He arrived in London at the age of around 20, Muinzer said, and continued to exhibit himself – building up a tidy sum of income as crowds flocked to witness his towering frame.

Around two years later, however, he was robbed. His entire fortune – thousands of pounds, in today’s money – was taken, and Byrne entered a prolonged funk. As his depression deepened, his medical condition did too, and he apparently contracted TB in the wake of the robbery.

“We understand now that someone who has gigantism has a medical condition - specifically it’s an excess secretion of a growth hormone from the pituitary gland that’s located at the base of your brain,” Muinzer explained.

Dead weight

Papers from the time reported that he told his friends he wanted to be buried at sea, due to concerns that surgeons might seek out his body if he was interred in a cemetery.

His body was taken to Margate on the coast of Kent – but as the burial party stopped overnight to rest, a crooked undertaker managed to swap out Byrne’s remains for dead weight.

The giant’s body was taken to Hunter’s home, where it was reduced to its bare bones. The surgeon unveiled his giant specimen around four years later. Meantime, the burial at sea had gone ahead as planned off Margate, according to reports from the time. No-one had been aware that Byrne’s remains were no longer in the coffin.

Royalty - The Queen meets the Irish Giant - Hunterian Museum, London The Queen viewing the skeleton of Charles Byrne in 1962. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Alongside Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary university in London, Muinzer published an article in the British Medical Journal in 2011 that led to an increase in calls to have Byrne’s remains released from the museum that bears Hunter’s name.

The famous surgeon’s collection of around 15,000 specimens and other items had been purchased by the UK government in 1799 and placed in the care of the College of Surgeons.

In their BMJ article, Muinzer and Doyal acknowledge the role the skeleton has played in research, including by helping to link acromegaly – the condition where someone produces too much growth hormone – and the pituitary gland.

According to the authors:

We believe that it should now be removed from display and buried at sea, as Byrne intended for himself. Others have expressed similar although not necessarily identical views. Byrne’s burial wish was not fulfilled because the pre-eminent surgeon and anatomist of the time, John Hunter, was determined to possess Byrne’s cadaver for his own purposes.

There has been renewed interest in the campaign of late, in light of the museum’s plans to close for a major revamp from May of this year. The story was featured on RTÉ’s history show last weekend – and has even been mentioned on Joe Duffy’s Liveline in recent days.

Speaking to TheJournal, Muinzer said Byrne’s skeleton was the prime attraction in the museum, which is free to enter.

If you go and visit it on the ground floor, you’ve got all sorts of specimens, but the huge cabinet that really catches the eye is this enormous skeleton and you’ve got Charles in there. And if you look at it face on from a few metres back there’s a bust of John Hunter that kind-of hovers over it.
Symbolically it’s quite potent if you think that Charlie’s got rough treatment, as I do. It’s the memorial museum to Hunter and then Hunter’s bust is suspended over it.
You sort-of think – ‘come on guys, this is hardly a respectful treatment of the poor chap, in terms of his posthumous wishes!’.

ch3 BBC / Screengrab BBC / Screengrab / Screengrab

Muinzer said he disagreed with the Royal College of Surgeons’ claims that there is still a scientific case to be made for retaining the remains – arguing that there is already a full DNA record on file, that a number of extensive studies had been done, and that it was now possible to make a full scale replica to replace the skeleton.

A number of people with acromegalic gigantism had also come forward to say they’re willing to have their remains studied after they die, said Muinzer.

The other thing I would just draw attention to – in no way, if I donate my body to medical science, does that presuppose that if I have some curious condition I can then automatically be put on public display as some sort of freak exhibit. That’s all very carefully regulated in Ireland and in the UK.

The lecturer, who qualified in law at Queen’s University in Belfast and has carried out extensive research on burial law, said that a person’s wishes for what happens to their body after they die aren’t – for various technical reasons – legally binding.

In Byrne’s case, there was apparently no written will. But generally, he said, wills only apply to property.

The fundamental point is – with our burial instructions, what we rely on is people to respect them morally. The instructions have moral force.

This is the full text of the statement sent to us by the Royal College of Surgeons:

The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea. No will or testament survives – there is no direct evidence of his burial wishes.
A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA). This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum. At the present time, the Museum’s Trustees therefore consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.

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