Belfast Telegraph

Museum to retain 'giant' skeleton

Museum chiefs have rejected a suggestion by experts in law and medical ethics that the skeleton of an 18th century man known as the "Irish Giant" should be removed from display and buried at sea.

Charles Byrne, originally from County Londonderry, stood just over 7ft 7in tall. He found fame in the 1780s exhibiting himself as a curiosity or "freak" in London.

Celebrity life eventually got the better of him, and he took to drink and died at his home in Charing Cross aged just 22. After his death, his body was acquired by the surgeon John Hunter, and his skeleton remains at the Hunterian Museum at the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at the School of Law, Queen's University, Belfast, call in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal for the skeleton to be buried at sea "as Byrne intended for himself".

They accept that the skeleton played an important part in linking the condition acromegaly, where excess growth hormone is produced, with the pituitary gland, which has enabled the diagnosis and early treatment of people who have it.

At the beginning of this year, further important research used the DNA from two of Byrne's molars to establish a genetic link between Byrne and several people from a particular area of Northern Ireland.

The authors say that Byrne's wish to be buried at sea was not fulfilled because Hunter, the pre-eminent surgeon and anatomist of the time, was determined to possess Byrne's cadaver for his own purposes. Byrne told friends that when he died his body should be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea, but Hunter bribed one of them and managed to acquire the body, boiling it down to the skeleton.

The authors say: "What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified. Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death."

Dr Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, said: "The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne's remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne's apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.

"At the present time, the museum's Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains."

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