Hunterian Museum defends decision to retain skeleton of ‘Irish giant’ Charles Byrne - Museums Association

Hunterian Museum defends decision to retain skeleton of ‘Irish giant’ Charles Byrne

Specimen will be removed from display but will continue to be available for medical research
Human Remains
Portrait of John Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), 1785. The feet of Charles Byrne's skeleton can be seen in the background. Copyright: Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England

The Hunterian Museum in London has defended its decision to retain the skeleton of Charles Byrne, an Irishman who lived with gigantism and grew to be 7ft 6in tall, for medical research.

The museum, which is part of the Royal College of Surgeons but is governed independently, confirmed that Byrne’s remains will be removed from public view when it reopens in March after a five-year redevelopment.

A statement from the museum said its trustees had used the period of closure to discuss the “sensitivities and the differing views” around the display and retention of the remains, before agreeing to retain the specimen for future study into the conditions of pituitary acromelagy and gigantism.

Byrne, who made a living exhibiting himself as the “Irish giant”, is said to have asked to be buried at sea to prevent his body being seized by anatomists.

However, following his death in 1783 at the age of 22, Byrne's cadaver was acquired by the surgeon, anatomist and museum founder, John Hunter, who is said to have bribed Byrne’s friends £500 to hand over the corpse en route to Margate, where they were intending to put it on a ship for burial.

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The skeleton is the best-known anatomical specimen in Hunter’s collection and has been on public display for more than 200 years.

The Hunterian acknowledged that anatomists and surgeons of the 18th and 19th centuries “acquired many specimens in ways we would not consider ethical today and which are rightly subject to review and discussion”.

Campaigners, including the late novelist Hilary Mantel, have long called for Byrne’s skeleton to be released for burial in accordance with his documented wishes.

However, the museum said in its statement that the skeleton is an “integral part of the Hunterian Collection” and is covered by the museum’s founding condition that “the collection [shall be kept] in as perfect a state as possible”.

The statement added that, while there are well-documented anecdotal references to Byrne’s last wishes, “no written evidence exists”.

The museum said the skeleton is a rare and important osteological specimen that could contribute to future understanding of Byrne’s medical conditions.

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The statement said: “Charles Byrne’s skeleton is a very rare specimen showing the effects of an untreated pituitary adenoma, causing acromegaly and gigantism from excessive bone growth.”

It added: “We cannot foresee the ways in which gene and bone analysis technologies may develop that could allow greater understanding of the causes of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.”

A 1785 portrait of John Hunter by Joshua Reynolds, which shows the feet of Byrne’s skeleton in the background, will be displayed in place of the specimen.

In a joint statement to the Daily Mail this week, two professionals who previously called for the burial of the skeleton, Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at London's Queen Mary University, and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at University of Aberdeen, welcomed the museum's decision to remove it from display.

But they said: “We can see no justification for the Hunterian to retain the skeleton for 'further research'; there is no obvious justification for this since DNA from the skeleton has been obtained and it is entirely unclear what further research the Hunterian has in mind.”

They added: “Byrne's wishes should at last be honoured and his skeleton should be buried at sea, we think with great fanfare.”

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The museum’s £4.6m redevelopment includes the display of more than 2,000 anatomical preparations from Hunter’s original collection, alongside instruments, equipment, models, paintings and archive material.

“The Hunterian Museum is one of the very few places in the UK where the public are able to see specimens prepared specifically to show human anatomy,” said Dawn Kemp, director of museums and special collections at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

“Under the Human Tissue Act it is only possible to publicly display human remains known to be more than 100 years old. The history of surgery is dramatic and often unsettling with stories of terrible human suffering. Yet historic medical collections, like the Hunterian, are also incredibly valuable in giving us a better understanding of our own health and wellbeing and the complex issues that have arisen in the development of the art and science of surgery.’’

A programme of talks, Hunterian Provocations, will begin at the museum in the autumn of 2023 to promote new research and explore issues around the display of human remains and the acquisition of specimens during British colonial expansion.

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