Should giant Charles Byrne be left to rest in peace?

Ethical questions linger 234 years after surgeon who inspired Dr Jekyll character stole Byrne’s towering corpse.

Byrne's skeleton is on display in London but ethicists say it is time to respect his wishes to be laid to rest [Paul Dean]
Byrne's skeleton is on display in London but ethicists say it is time to respect his wishes to be laid to rest [Paul Dean]

London, United Kingdom – Irish folklore is peppered with tales of giants roaming the land but, when a real giant travelled to London in the 18th century, he met a grisly fate that would rival even the most far-fetched of myths.

His name was Charles Byrne. Born in Northern Ireland’s County Derry in 1761, he now occupies a glass cabinet surrounded by anatomical and zoological specimens in the Hunterian Museum inside the Royal College of Surgeons, London. His residence is the subject of fierce debate between those who wish to protect the lifesaving quality of his DNA and those who advocate for the burial that he was denied.  

Byrne, third from right, with George Cranstoun – a dwarf, and three other men [Wellcome Images]

Byrne stood at the towering height of seven feet and seven inches – tall enough to light his pipe from street lanterns. Undiagnosed during his lifetime, Byrne suffered from a benign tumour in the pituitary gland of his brain which prompted an excess of somatotropin, also known as human growth hormone.

His stature propelled him. In his late teenage years, he travelled across the Irish Sea to England to seek his fortune as a human curiosity, oblivious to the macabre ending that would befall him. 

By the time Byrne’s one-man circus arrived in London, his reputation had preceded him and paying crowds clamoured for an audience with the eloquent and elegantly-dressed giant who exhibited himself in an apartment above a cane shop near Trafalgar Square.

Within weeks, Byrne was feted by assorted members of high society, among them a man that would help define Byrne’s legacy, for better or worse.

Death and deceit 

Scottish-born John Hunter was one of the most esteemed surgeons of 18th century Britain who pioneered an approach of rigorous experimentation and observation. He made important contributions to the studies of anatomy, physiology and pathology. He also developed an attraction to Charles Byrne, although it is unknown if Hunter ever visited him personally.

After a year’s performing in London, Byrne’s finances flourished, but his health was deteriorating as the pain of his untreated gigantism persisted. To compound his misery, his savings – which he unwisely kept on his person when drinking in a tavern one evening – were pick-pocketed.

Following this episode, Byrne became severely dispirited, compounded by the worsening pain of his condition. 

In June 1783, he died aged 22.

Hunter boiled Byrne's body, drained all tissue and fat, and years later would unveil his newest exhibit to the world - the skeleton of the Irish Giant which now stands in a glass cabinet, the centrepiece of the museum that bears Hunter's name

He had contracted tuberculosis and had other complications arising from his gigantism; it was also reported he had been drinking to excess.

Knowing he was dying, Byrne reportedly instructed his friends to bury his body at sea in a lead coffin. He was terrified of being anatomised and displayed in a museum and subject to curiosity, even in death. 

But London’s surgical community was quick to act. On June 5, 1783, the Morning Herald newspaper observed a crowd of surgeons “surrounding [Byrne’s] house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale”. However, none were as prepared as Hunter to obtain Byrne’s body. Through intermediaries, Hunter made repeated offers of vast sums of money for Byrne to sell him his body upon death, all of which Byrne refused.

The surgeon then bribed one of Byrne’s associates who, with a henchman hired by Hunter, opened the coffin and replaced the body with large rocks. They carted the cadaver back to London while Byrne’s friends slept.

Hunter boiled Byrne’s body, drained all tissue and fat, and years later would unveil his newest exhibit to the world – the skeleton of the Irish Giant which now stands in a glass cabinet, the centrepiece of the museum that bears Hunter’s name.  

Historian Wendy Moore, author of The Knife Man, a biography of Hunter, told Al Jazeera that although body-snatching was common in London, Hunter overstepped the boundaries.Why Hunter hid the skeleton so long remains a mystery, some say it was guilt, while others say it took time to assemble. Much of Hunter’s collection remained largely private, so it was not unusual to limit public access to an exhibit.

“I think initially he was motivated by scientific curiosity of the giant, particularly because he was trying to understand how life on Earth first began and was interested in any deviation from the norm,” she said. “But it was clear that the giant was going to be a trophy for his museum too. He couldn’t help himself; he let his collecting mania get hold of him.”

Medical ethicists weigh in

This perceived historical injustice has prompted medical ethicists and other campaigners to lobby the museum to honour Byrne’s wishes. 

“I became sympathetic to the view that his remains had not been given posthumous respect,” Thomas Muinzer, a doctor and legal lecturer at the University of Stirling, told Al Jazeera.

“There is enough evidence to conclude that Charles didn’t want his body to be snatched and put on display. The Edinburgh Evening Courant reported at the time that Byrne would be carried to Margate to be thrown into the sea ‘agreeable to his own request’.”

The Hunterian Museum, which is currently closed for refurbishment, has consistently defended displaying Byrne’s remains, citing the absence of direct evidence of his burial wishes. In 2011, trustees of the Hunterian Museum Brendan rejected calls by Muinzer and others to liberate Byrne’s skeleton.

“The Hunterian Collecting Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits of exhibiting Byrne’s remains merit their retention,” a spokesman told Al Jazeera.

A key figure in the establishment of post-mortem examinations, Hunter’s thirst for knowledge required a constant supply of bodies to cut and probe. 

In his time, people tended not to leave their bodies to science, so Hunter had little recourse but to acquire his cadavers from the overflowing cemeteries of London, often obtaining bodies of paupers and criminals.

Resurrectionists or Body Snatchers were much-feared. John Hunter retained their services to ensure a constant supply of bodies for dissection. Illustration by ‘Phiz’ (Hablot K Browne) 1887 [Getty Images]

For this, he maintained a web of undertakers, policemen, coroners and grave robbers on his payroll who would inform him of the latest corpses interred. Most coveted were those of abnormal size or with deformities; they would be delivered by horse and carriage to the courtyard of Hunter’s home.

These men, “The Resurrectionists”, were widely feared, including by Byrne, who, hailing from rural Ireland was likely to have been an observant Christian. Such was the literal belief in the dead rising from the grave on the Day of Judgement that any interference with a corpse was thought to compromise a person’s acceptance into heaven.

A distinguished doctor and well-respected member of society by day, by night, an obsessive character that liaised with the underworld – it is no surprise a contemporary of Hunter was Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Descriptions of Jekyll and his home bear a strong resemblance to the Scottish surgeon and his Leicester Square townhouse.

‘Byrne is in the folk consciousness’ 

Muinzer’s growing interest led him to Byrne’s rural homeland to conduct field research, roaming the villages and pubs interrogating the locals about the giant’s legacy.

“Byrne is in the folk consciousness of the older generations who were brought up with his story,” Muinzer says.

“He used to be associated with a local heritage site called the Giants’ Grave, so-called because they say Byrne laid down at that site and said: ‘When I die I want to buried here’. As he lay there, his friends dug a trench around him, so it made a silhouetted imprint of a man in the earth.”

You have to accept the social values of 1780s London - this was a time when live human beings were bought and sold, so it didn't seem that buying and selling dead bodies was such a big deal

Brendan Holland, genetic relative of Charles Byrne with gigantism

Marta Korbonits, doctor and professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University, London, established the genetic commonality of pituitary gigantism in 2006 after she noticed her patients were all natives of a precise area of mid-Ulster, Northern Ireland.

“Consider genetics as a book and every letter is a building block of a gene. A mutation is like one misspelling in the book – the Irish families I met had the same misspelling, imagine the mathematical possibility of this. Clinically the picture began to come clear,” Korbonits told Al Jazeera.

“Suddenly I remembered there is this famous Irish giant in the museum around the corner and thought, ‘Could there be a link?'”

Korbonits subsequently persuaded the Hunterian to allow her to send samples of Byrne’s teeth away for DNA tests. The results showed that the part of Ireland Byrne came from was a “giant hotspot”, and her team embarked on a population screening there to promote early treatment for carriers of the genetic mutation.

‘Giant’ genetic relative speaks out

Brendan Holland, 65, admits some “creepy similarities” between his life and Byrne’s.

Both grew up around 10 miles from each other, moved to London as young men and worked near Trafalgar Square – in Holland’s case as a civil servant in the ministry of agriculture.

Holland stands at over six feet and nine inches tall and has since discovered he is a genetic relative of Byrne after research into pituitary gigantism found a genetic link.

“It’s strange to see a human skeleton in a glass case with lights on him,” said Holland. “You wonder, ‘is that how I would like to end up?’ On the other hand, I am the beneficiary of his experience through the DNA research, so it is mixed feelings.

“I don’t suppose anyone wants to end up the way he did since he fully expressed his wishes that he be buried at sea. But I think you have to accept the social values of 1780s London – this was a time when live human beings were bought and sold, so it didn’t seem that buying and selling dead bodies was such a big deal.”

But some say Byrne times have changed, and Byrne should now be buried.

“I believe it would be possible to make a replica of the skeleton, and personally I think Byrne should have his wish and his body [be] buried at sea now. I think it’s the right thing to do,” said biographer Wendy Moore

Such an act would not be without precedent. 

Byrne died age 22 and had wished to be buried at sea [Public Domain]

In the last decade, the Maori community has arranged a series of repatriations of bones that were seized by American and European anthropologists centuries ago and exhibited in museums and private collections to their ancestral homeland of New Zealand.

Korbonits claims that it is impossible to know what more Byrne’s remains may be able to tell us.

“If reports from the time are correct, then what happened to Byrne’s body is unacceptable. But I would be very short-sighted and full of myself if I claimed that I discovered everything that needs to be known from the remains and there is nothing left to be found.”

But for hardliners such as Muinzer, the mere act of displaying Byrne is an outrage.

“The Royal College of Surgeons says that he is of great value to medical science but that doesn’t presuppose that you need to display the remains as a curiosity piece, or as a freak exhibit as I have heard it described, in the memorial museum to the person who is responsible for the theft of the remains.”

Among specimens such as mummified remains, Winston Churchill’s dentures and the rectum of a former Bishop of Durham, Byrne’s haunting skeleton stands in the centre of the museum. A bust of John Hunter is perched on a shelf above, watching over him, their fame forever intertwined.

The museum confirmed to Al Jazeera that Byrne’s skeleton would remain on display upon its reopening.


If keeping the skeleton plays a small part in looking after those people and curing them as soon as possible, then it's a small price to pay

Brendan Holland, genetic relative of Charles Byrne with gigantism

Speaking to Al Jazeera by telephone, Holland explained how living with gigantism was a daily struggle before he sought treatment at the age of 20.

“Apart from the obvious spurt of growth, I was having headaches, tiredness, fatigue and generally feeling unwell and underpowered. It was affecting my whole immune system, and at one stage I contracted tuberculosis. Before medication became available, most men and women affected by this didn’t live beyond their mid-twenties.”

Holland, Byrne’s genetic relative, says he doesn’t want to “get on [his] moral high-horse” on the ethical argument and instead highlights the importance of raising awareness of pituitary gigantism.

“We need to expand the public awareness of the condition, particularly where I am from. It’s insidious; it can lie dormant for generations and suddenly pops up and presents itself. If keeping the skeleton plays a small part in looking after those people and curing them as soon as possible then it’s a small price to pay.”

Source : Al Jazeera


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