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, 

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.

Photomechanical print Charles Byrne’s skeleton displayed next to Crachani the Sicilan Dwarf at the Hunterian Museum, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library,

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.



[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.

Irre-moo-vable Side Effects: Cows, Etchings and Opposition to the Smallpox Vaccination, 1800-1810.

Figure 1: ‘Edward Jenner vaccinating patients in the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras: the patients develop features of cows’, Coloured etching by J. Gillray, 1802, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London,, last accessed 23rd April 2018.

Edward Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine in the 1790s was a crucial turning point for the eradication of smallpox. Variolation, the direct exposure of an individual to the smallpox virus to encourage immunity, was replaced by Jenner with vaccination, in which a scab from the infectious cow-pox virus was inserted into the skin. Inoculation was therefore now possible and proved to not only save many 19th century lives, but also contributed to the eradication of smallpox by 1980.

Yet as with all new medical advances, the early 19th century smallpox vaccine was met with opposition. Coloured etchings held at the Wellcome Library, London, suggest that one simple aspect of the vaccine made the public and anti-vaccinators uneasy – the cow.

The fear of the cow was depicted widely between the years 1800 and 1810, the first ten years of the smallpox vaccination. A coloured etching by J. Gillray, published in 1802, depicts Edward Jenner vaccinating patients at St Pancras’ Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital (see Figure 1.) The patients who have been vaccinated are shown to be developing pustules, boils and extra limbs, all in the shape of small cows. One lady has even developed the horns of a cow. Furthermore, a young boy is shown carrying a pot of ‘Vaccine Pox, Straight from the Cow’, whilst Edward Jenner administers the pox into his next patient. The general public were fearful of being vaccinated with a disease present in cows and believed that the vaccine came directly from a cow. Contrary to this opinion, the vaccine was in fact derived from the scabs and blisters of those infected with cow-pox, not the cows themselves. The irrational fear of developing cow-like features highlights the lack of public understanding of vaccination; in an attempt to understand the vaccination process, those unfamiliar with medicine took the cow-pox vaccine literally.

Figure 2: ‘A monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns; symbolising vaccination and its effects.’, Etching by C. Williams, 1802, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London,, last accessed 23rd April 2018.

The humble cow was further villainised in 1802 with an etching by C. Williams (see Figure 2). In this case, the cow is shown to be the cause of all 19th century infection and disease, such as leprosy, pestilence, plague, and fetid ulcers. Men with cow horns atop their heads are shown to be feeding live babies to the cow, whilst a man at the rear end of the cow is shovelling dead babies into a cart. Interestingly, the diseases which the cow’s body is shown to incubate were at the time incurable, suggesting that the smallpox vaccination was seen as a farce by anti-vaccinators. How could a disease that originated in an animal that harbours such horrid diseases, be the cure for smallpox? The cow was therefore seen as the opposite of a medical cure and so was deemed unsafe to play any part in the vaccination process.

Figure 3: ‘A cow named “Vaccination”‘, Coloured aquatint by M. Dubourg, 1810, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London,, last accessed 23rd April 2018.

Accusations doubting the reliability of the smallpox vaccine were also made amongst ant-vaccinators and the general public. This can best be seen in M. Duborg’s coloured aquatint of 1810, a portrait of a young white cow (see Figure 3.) At first glance, this piece of art looks to be nothing more than a detailed portrait, yet the caption tells a different story. Entitled ‘Vaccination, a favourite young cow’, this portrait argues that the smallpox vaccine was not reliable, due to its recent discovery. Anti-vaccinators were consequently also troubled by the vaccination of individuals with a vaccine less than 15 years old.

From irre-moo-vable side effects to anxieties surrounding the reliability of Jenner’s discovery, it is clear from the above etchings that the smallpox vaccine was feared by anti-vaccinators and the general public during its infancy. The cow was seen as unclean, unreliable and harmful to the human body, despite it having no direct link to the vaccine. The fear of the cow ultimately came from a simple misunderstanding; the origin of the cowpox infection used in the smallpox vaccine.


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