‘Irish giant’ finally finds some privacy 200 years after body kidnapping incident: ScienceAlert

‘Irish giant’ finally finds some privacy 200 years after body kidnapping incident: ScienceAlert

‘Irish giant’ finally finds some privacy 200 years after body kidnapping incident: ScienceAlert

After more than 200 years on display, Charles Byrne’s 7 feet 7 inches (2.31 metres) tall skeleton has been removed as an exhibit from the Hunterian Museum in London.

Byrne had an undiagnosed benign tumor of the pituitary gland, causing an abundance of growth hormone and gigantism.

The display 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 place his remains well beyond the reach of notorious curator of medical oddities, John the Huntsman.

However, burial in the sea will not occur as the Royal College of Surgeons, which runs the Hunterian Museum, says they will stick to the skeleton for real research projects. The museum is currently closed for major renovations and will reopen in March.

Charles Byrne's skeleton
Charles Byrne’s skeleton on display. (Doyal and Muinzer, BMJ2011)

“During the museum’s closure, the Hunterian Collection Board of Trustees discussed issues of sensitivity and differing views on the display and preservation of Charles Byrne’s skeleton,” the museum said in a statement to the press.

“The trustees agreed that Charles Byrne’s skeleton would not be displayed in the remodeled Hunterian Museum, but would still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.”

Byrne’s story is full of drama and interest. He was born in Mid Ulster, Northern Ireland in 1761 as Charles O’Brien. Arriving in London at the age of 21, he quickly became one of the biggest celebrities of the time, entertaining crowds and making headlines.

However, at the age of 22, his health was deteriorating rapidly. He died in 1783 and was anxious to prevent his body from being taken by anatomists – especially the surgeon John Hunter. Hunter was well known for collecting unusual specimens for exhibition and had already approached him and had been rejected by Byrne.

Although Bryne paid friends to place his remains in a lead coffin and bury them in the ocean, Hunter arranged for the body to be kidnapped and replaced with heavy stones. The corpse was then reduced to skeleton, and was put on display in Hunter’s own museum four years later. It was bought by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1799.

This story of body abduction has prompted repeated calls for the skeleton to be removed from the exhibit, for both legal and ethical reasons – and it is certainly not something you can imagine being tolerated today.

Among those who have asked for a 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 knew of Byrne’s horror 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 repaired morally. It is certainly time to honor Byrne’s memory and reputation: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death.”

While the museum and its owners are not 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 at the Hunterian Museum with a painting of Hunter by the famous English painter Joshua Reynolds. The portrait shows one of Charles Byrne’s leg bones in the background.

According to Byrne’s distant relative, Brendan Holland, the decision is correct: he shares a common ancestor with the Byrnes and also has gigantism. Holland points to the advances that have been made in understanding the condition thanks to Byrne’s skeleton.

“It has benefited the living, people with the disease now know why they have it and how to treat it,” Holland told the BBC.

“I think [Byrne] alive would agree with it because it can be life threatening.”

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