After 200 years of being on display in various museums, experts have called for the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant” to be buried at sea, as he wanted.
Byrne, who was seven feet and seven inches tall, was a celebrity in his own lifetime. At the age of 22, in 1783, he died.
The Tyrone man knew that John Hunter, a renowned surgeon and anatomist, was eager to get a hold of his skeleton. However, according to the British Medical Journal’s record, Byrne was terrified of being one of the doctor’s specimens and made it clear that he wished to be buried at sea.
Sadly, Hunter bribed one of the Irishman’s friends and his body was taken before it was laid to rest. His body was boiled down to a skeleton and became a feature of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
The article in the British Medical Journal states, “the fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne's terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. 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."
Byrne’s skeleton has helped in research, including helping to link acromegaly (a condition where someone produces too much growth hormone) and the pituitary gland.
Professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary University in London, Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at Queen's University Belfast, are now calling for Byrne’s body to be released and buried in the English Channel as he had requested before his death.
They both argue in the article that DNA samples have been taken from Byrne’s skeleton so he can continue to aid research. His skeleton can also be replaced by a replica to aid education.
“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," they wrote.
Sadly, the Director of the Hunterian Museum rejected their call. Sam Alberti says that the benefits of keeping Byrne’s skeleton in the musuem outweigh the value of respecting the man’s wishes.
He said, “A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into familial isolated pituitary adenoma (benign pituitary tumours that run in families)...This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum.
"At the present time, the museum's trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains."