Acknowledging His Last Wishes: Charles Byrne, The Irish Giant

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Etching of Irish Giant Charles Byrne by J. Kay, 1794, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/z4eyvur4?query=charles+byrne 

Charles Byrne, otherwise known as the Irish Giant, died aged 22 in 1783. During his life he exhibited himself around the United Kingdom, attracting the attention of the public and the medical profession. Whilst the public, fascinated by his towering height, enjoyed his performances, the medical profession was intent on studying his body. They believed that his body held the key to understanding pituitary gigantism and were willing to procure his body by any means possible.

Fast forward to 1783, Charles Byrne died at home. Knowing of the medical professions’ obsession with his body, he made arrangements prior to his death to have his body thrown into the Irish sea in a lead coffin. Medical men couldn’t possibly procure his body then, could they?

Wrong! Enter John Hunter, prevalent surgeon and anatomist. He had been looking for an opportunity to study gigantism, (and complete his burgeoning private collection) – Charles Byrne’s death was his dream come true.

Hunter bribed Byrne’s fisherman friends was alcohol and £500 in exchange for them delivering the body to his London residence.[1] Once in his residence, Hunter boiled Byrne’s bones in a pot and hid them for three years in order to avoid suspicion.[2]

Byrne’s bones have been on display at the Hunterian since its opening in 1800, yet its current refurbishment closures have reignited calls for Byrne’s bones to be buried in the Irish Sea.

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Photomechanical print Charles Byrne’s skeleton displayed next to Crachani the Sicilan Dwarf at the Hunterian Museum, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rvgcd3k6?query=irish+giant

I fully support this campaign, and my reasons for this are two-fold. The study of giant’s bones, including Byrne’s, has led to the discovery of the causes of gigantism. Neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing examined Byrne’s skeleton in 1909, and determined that he had died due to a pituitary adenoma – brain tumour.[3] Since this research, pituitary gigantism has been identified as a medical condition and has aided the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. Byrne’s body is no longer needed for medical research. Today it is simply a museum exhibit – performing just as Byrne did when he was alive. 

Perhaps on an even more human level, it is clear from newspaper obituaries published after his death, that Byrne wanted to be buried at sea and evade capture by physicians:

 

“In his last moments (it has been said), he requested that his ponderous

remains might be thrown into the sea, in order that his bones might be

placed out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity.”[4]

 

As Byrne’s personal correspondence is not available to historians saved, we cannot be 100% sure that he expressed these wishes in the above way. Yet it is clear from the actions of his friends – they did throw a coffin into the Irish Sea, (albeit without Byrne’s body) – that he wanted to save his body from dissection.

As campaigners are suggesting, now is the perfect time for the Hunterian to review its accession and display of Charles Byrne. Byrne’s body no longer needs to be displayed or studied. It is time to acknowledge and act upon his last wishes.

 

References:

[1] J. Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, (Itacha; Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 196-7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] L. Bradley and P. J. Morrison, ‘Giants of the British Isles’, Ulster Medical Journal, 80:1, (2011), p. 31.

[4] Anon, ‘Charles Byrne Obituary’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1st June 1783, p. 514, taken from W. Moore, The Knife Man, The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery, (London; Bantam Press, 2005), p. 314.

 

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.

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