Experts urge 18th-century 'Irish giant' be laid to rest

Experts called Wednesday for the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the "Irish giant", to be removed from a London museum where it has been on display for almost 200 years and buried at sea, as he wanted.

Standing at seven feet seven inches tall (2.3 metres), Byrne was a celebrity in his own lifetime and when he died in 1783 at the age of 22, the renowned surgeon and anatomist John Hunter was keen to acquire his skeleton.

According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Byrne was terrified of becoming one of Hunter's specimens and wanted to be buried at sea.

But the surgeon managed to bribe one of the Irishman's friends and took his body before it could be laid to rest in the English Channel.

Hunter boiled Byrne's body down to a skeleton and it became a key feature of his anatomy collection. This was later displayed at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where it remains today.

In the BMJ article, experts acknowledge the role the skeleton has played in research, including by helping to link acromegaly -- an unusual condition where someone produces too much growth hormone -- and the pituitary gland.

But Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary university in London, and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at Queen's University Belfast, say it is now time to grant Byrne's wish and give him a peaceful burial at sea.

"The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne's terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified," they wrote.

"Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death."

They argue that Byrne's DNA has now been taken and can be used in further research, while his skeleton can be replaced by a fake for the purposes of public education.

"As a sign of respect for Byrne's original desires, his skeleton should be buried at sea as part of a ceremony commemorating his life," they write.

However, Hunterian Museum director Sam Alberti rejected the call, saying the value of the remains outweighed his apparent wishes.

"A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into familial isolated pituitary adenoma (benign pituitary tumours that run in families)," he said.

"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 consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains."

Explore further

Smart contact lenses could make eye drops a thing of the past

(c) 2011 AFP

Citation: Experts urge 18th-century 'Irish giant' be laid to rest (2011, December 21) retrieved 20 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 21, 2011
Morally reprehensible. Let him go.

Dec 21, 2011
The problem is what he wanted did not happen and cannot be reversed--he has been made a specimen--putting his remains back in the sea cannot reverse that abuse. It is likely his wishes concerned the process of becoming a specimen more than what happened afterwards. That is a problem since we do not know what he would have wished if having become one of Hunter's specimens, he then became because of that an individual with a legacy of fame--a legacy of fame that now might be reduced if his original wish is now carried out. Look at Charles Byrne (giant) on Wikepdia--he has more enduring fame than most Irishman of his era--it is not clear if he had foreseen that he would have objected to that fame continuing.

Dec 21, 2011
We shouldn't use him as a public attraction in museum, but we shouldn't destroy this rare genetic evidence of gigantism as well. Maybe it holds the clue about our real origin, which many evolutionists would prefer to cover before publicity.

http://upload.wik...tion.jpg Skulls.jpg


Dec 21, 2011
For example, here you can read about many interesting artifacts, which the mainstream science ignores for years in the same way, like the cold fusion finding. We are living in very obscurantist times and it must simply stop.


Dec 21, 2011
Morally reprehensible. Let him go.

Reprehensible and then some. The man clearly stated his wishes and his concern for exactly this happening. After 200 years and the body being boiled to reduce it to bones I'd question the viability of any genetic materials value. Shaking my head at this.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more