The skeleton of Charles Byrne, who was born in 1761 and suffers from gigantism, will remain at the Hunterian Museum in London to enable research and preserve the integrity of the collection.
Charles Byrne’s 2.30 m tall skeleton is no longer on display in the museum. Almost two and a half centuries after his death, the news is a small step in respecting the last will of the ‘Irish giant’. Charles Byrne was born in Northern Ireland in 1761 and suffered from gigantism due to an undiagnosed benign tumor of the pituitary gland. Its peculiarity became an attraction and a living: people paid two shillings to see what was said to be the tallest man in Georgian England.
His notoriety aroused the interest and desire of John Hunter, a distinguished surgeon at St George’s Hospital in London, who, as the institute recalls on its website, makes no secret of his intentions to have Charles Byrne’s body buried for him in the get hands collection. Horrified by this idea, the “Irish giant” demands that his body be dunked into the sea after his death. Charles Byrne had his savings stolen, became drunk and was found dead in his London flat in 1783 at the age of 22. no problem. A newspaper of the time described a “tribe of surgeons” surrounding his home as “harpooners” around a “giant whale.”
Three years later Charles Byrne’s skeleton was found on display in the John Hunter Museum in London. His body was stolen and replaced with dead weights in the coffin when he reached the seaside town of Margate for his final sea voyage.
The Hunterian Museum in London has acknowledged the “sensitivities” and “differing viewpoints” surrounding the display of the skeleton and its preservation, recently announcing that it will no longer be on public display when the facility reopens after five years of work. “John Hunter (1728-1793), other anatomists and surgeons of the 18th and 19th centuries acquired many specimens in a manner that would no longer be considered ethical,” the trustees of the Hunterian Collection emphasize.
They also announced the launch of a program in the autumn to address issues “revolving around the display of human remains and the acquisition of specimens during British colonial expansion.” The removal of the skeleton from the museum is “wonderful news,” said Thomas Muinzer, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, who has campaigned for years to ensure Charles Byrne’s wishes are respected. But this is only a “partial success”, he regrets to AFP.
His last wish: dive into the sea
The skeleton will be preserved to enable research and to preserve the integrity of the collection. Arguments that hardly convince Thomas Muinzer, considering that the skeleton was extensively examined, its complete DNA was extracted from it and there are still patients with the same pathology today. The lawyer discovered Charles Byrne’s story in a moment of boredom when he was a student at Belfast University. Then he fell in love with this “famous forgotten figure” and realized that the exposure of his skeleton persists: an “injustice” that must be righted.
In 2011, Thomas Muinzer had championed Charles Byrne’s cause by co-publishing an article in the British Medical Journal with Len Doyal, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at Queen Mary University of London, in which he wrote “before the eyes should be ‘hidden from the public’ and ‘dipped in the sea in accordance with his last will’. What made Charles Byrne not to be buried on the ground no longer applies today, he stresses. “We no longer have to worry about the ‘resurrectionists’ of 18th and 19th century England and their trade in corpses.
British novelist Hilary Mantel, who died last September and wrote a fictional portrait of the “Irish giant,” had turned to mobilization and even believed it was time to return Charles Byrne’s remains to her home island.