Charles Byrne's skeleton on display at the Hunterian Museum

Hunterian to consider release of "Irish giant" skeleton

Jonathan Knott, 20.06.2018
Charles Byrne’s body was acquired by surgeon John Hunter in 1783
Trustees of the Hunterian Museum in London are to consider whether to release the skeleton of the "Irish giant" Charles Byrne for burial, following renewed pressure from campaigners.

The issue has been ongoing for a number of years, with some legal and medical professionals arguing that the 18th-century remains should be removed from display and granted a respectful burial, in accordance with Byrne’s apparent wishes when alive.

Interest in the case has grown recently because the Hunterian Museum is to be closed for three years while the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) of England building, which houses the museum, is being redeveloped.

A spokesperson for the RCS said: “The Hunterian Museum will be closed until 2021 and Charles Byrne’s skeleton is not currently on display. The board of trustees of the Hunterian collection will be discussing the matter during the period of closure of the museum.”

Bryne, who was born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1761, suffered from pituitary gigantism, a condition that caused him to grow to a height of about 2.3m.

As a teenager, Byrne began to tour the UK as a spectacle, arriving in London in 1782. He died the following year aged 22. According to newspaper reports at the time, Byrne drank heavily and this habit intensified after he was robbed of his savings, but the major cause of his death was probably his pituitary condition.

Bryne reportedly told friends before he died that he wanted to be buried at sea to prevent his body being used for medical research. However, his body was acquired by the eminent surgeon John Hunter before this could happen. It is not known exactly how Hunter obtained the remains, but many accounts say that he bribed someone from Byrne's funeral party to remove his body from the coffin and replace it with dead weight.

Hunter exhibited Byrne’s skeleton four years later in his museum in London. The RCS was given Hunter’s collection by the British government, which purchased it in 1799.

In an article for the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2011, professor of medical ethics Len Doyal and legal researcher Thomas Muinzer wrote: “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. We recommend that the Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons organise this burial, along with a conference on related legal and ethical issues.

“At the very least, we suggest that more complete information is provided about the background of the acquisition and display of Byrne’s skeleton so that visitors can make a more informed judgment about the moral implications and appropriateness of its continued display.”

Byrne’s remains and DNA have been used for important medical research that has enabled better care for people living with or susceptible to his condition today. But the authors argued that this was not a justification for displaying the skeleton.

A website, Free Charles Byrne, also argues that Byrne’s remains should be removed from display and released for burial.

In a response to the 2011 BMJ article, the museum’s then director said that removing Byrne’s remains from display “would deny the Hunterian Museum’s inclusive audiences the experience of studying the authentic remains as part of a coherent historical collection”.

He also said that while Doyal and Muinzer’s case is compelling, so too “is the argument that in accordance with the wishes of genetically connected individuals, Charles Byrne’s remains be retained to advance our understanding of rare conditions and to benefit contemporary communities”.

Thomas Muinzer, now a lecturer at the University of Stirling, told Museums Journal that the trustees’ decision to discuss the matter was “good to know”.

“I assume there are some divergent views among the trustees, but I’m sure that gives an opportunity for anyone with concerns to speak up about the display,” he said. “I wouldn’t hold my breath for them withdrawing the exhibit based on that, but it’s obviously positive.”

Muinzer said that it was also an option for the museum to remove Byrne’s remains from display without releasing them for burial. He added that a respectful land burial may also be in accordance with the purpose of Byrne's wishes.

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