After more than 200 years of being on public display, the 7-foot, 7-inch (2.31-meter) tall skeleton of ‘Irish giant’ Charles Byrne is being removed as an exhibit from the Hunterian Museum in London.
Byrne had an undiagnosed benign tumor of the pituitary gland, causing an abundance of the body’s growth hormone and gigantism.
The showcasing of his skeleton has always been controversial – not least because the man himself was on record dreading such a fate, indicating he wanting to be buried at sea – to put his remains well out of reach of the notorious curator of medical oddities, John Hunter.
A sea burial isn’t going to happen, though, because the Royal College of Surgeons that runs the Hunterian Museum says it will hang on to the skeleton for genuine research projects. The museum is currently closed for extensive renovations, reopening in March.
“During the period of closure of the Museum, the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection discussed the sensitivities and the differing views surrounding the display and retention of Charles Byrne’s skeleton,” said the museum in a statement to the press.
“The Trustees 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 pituitary acromegaly and 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. After arriving in London at the age of 21, he quickly became one of the biggest celebrities of the day, entertaining crowds and appearing in newspapers.
By the age of 22, however, his health was quickly deteriorating. He died in 1783, and was keen that his body not be taken by anatomists – particularly by the surgeon John Hunter. Hunter was well known for collecting unusual specimens for display, and had already approached and been turned down by Byrne.
Although Bryne had paid friends to put his remains in a lead coffin and bury them in the ocean, Hunter arranged for the body to be snatched and replaced with heavy rocks. The corpse was then boiled down to the skeleton, and four years later was put on display in Hunter’s own museum. It was bought by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1799.
This tale of body snatching has prompted repeated calls for the skeleton to be removed from display, on both legal and ethical grounds – and it’s certainly not something that you could imagine being tolerated today.
Among those asking for a rethink in recent years were Len Doyal, a 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 terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body,” wrote Doyal and Muinzer 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 the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death.”
While the museum and its owners aren’t exactly doing what Byrne originally wished, 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 painting of Hunter by the famous English painter Joshua Reynolds. The portrait includes one of the leg bones of Charles Byrne 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 has gigantism. Holland points to the advancements that have been made in terms of understanding the condition thanks to Byrne’s skeleton.
“It has benefitted the living, those with the condition now know why they have it and how to treat it,” Holland told the BBC.
“I think if [Byrne] was alive, he would concur with it, as it can be life threatening.”