After more than 200 years on public display, the 7ft 7in (2.31m) tall skeleton of ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne is being retired as an exhibit of the Hunterian Museum in London.
Byrne had an undiagnosed benign tumor of the pituitary gland, causing an abundance of growth hormone and gigantism.
The presentation of his skeleton has always been controversial – not least because the man himself feared such a fate, indicating that he wanted to be buried at sea – to put his remains out of reach of the famous curator of medical oddities, John Chasseur .
A burial at sea will not happen, however, as the Royal College of Surgeons which runs the Hunterian Museum says it will hold on to the skeleton for genuine research projects. The museum is currently closed for major renovations and will reopen in March.
“During the period of the museum’s closure, the Hunterian Collection Board has discussed the sensitivities and differences of opinion surrounding the display and preservation of Charles Byrne’s skeleton,” the museum said in a statement. hurry.
“The trustees have agreed that Charles Byrne’s skeleton will not be displayed in the redeveloped Hunterian Museum, but will still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of acromegaly and pituitary gigantism.”
Byrne’s story is full of drama and interest. He was born in Mid Ulster in Northern Ireland in 1761 as Charles O’Brien. Arriving in London aged 21, he quickly became one of the biggest celebrities of the time, entertaining crowds and appearing in newspapers.
By the age of 22, however, his health was rapidly deteriorating. He died in 1783 and was keen that his body not be taken away by anatomists – in particular by surgeon John Hunter. Hunter was well known for collecting unusual specimens for display, and had approached before and been turned down by Byrne.
Although Bryne paid friends to put her remains in a lead coffin and bury them in the ocean, Hunter arranged for the body to be pulled out and replaced with heavy stones. The corpse was later reduced to a skeleton and four years later went on display in Hunter’s own museum. It was purchased by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1799.
This story of the body snatching has prompted repeated calls for the skeleton to be removed from display, for legal and ethical reasons – and it’s certainly not something you could imagine being tolerated today.
Among those asking to rethink in recent years have been Len Doyal, professor of medical ethics at the University of London, and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at the University of Aberdeen.
“The fact is that Hunter was aware of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes to dispose of his body,” Doyal and Muinzer wrote in a 2011 article in The BMJ.
“What has been done cannot be undone, but it can be morally rectified. Surely it is time to respect Byrne’s memory and reputation: the story of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death.”
While the museum and its owners aren’t doing exactly what Byrne originally wanted, they are at least removing the skeleton as a public spectacle. From now on, only medical researchers will be able to view it.
The remains will be replaced in the Hunterian Museum with a Hunter painting by famed English painter Joshua Reynolds. The portrait includes one of Charles Byrne’s leg bones in the background.
The decision is the right one, according to Byrne’s distant relative, Brendan Holland: he shares a common ancestor with the Byrnes, and also suffers from gigantism. Holland highlights the progress that has been made in terms of understanding the disease thanks to Byrne’s skeleton.
“It has benefited the living, those who have it now know why they have it and how to treat it,” Holland told the BBC.
“I think if [Byrne] was alive, he would be okay with that, because it can put his life in danger.”