The Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons of England, contains approximately 3,500 anatomical oddities and medical specimens amassed by its namesake, 18th-century surgeon John Hunter. Looming over the collection is the 235-year-old skeleton of Charles Byrne, the so-called “Irish Giant.”
The problem is, Byrne had no desire to have his remains turned into a museum display. In fact, he specifically asked for that to never happen. Over the last decade, advocates for repatriation have increasingly put pressure on the Hunterian to observe to Byrne’s final wishes and release his bones for burial.
Now, reports Hannah Devlin at The Guardian, the museum — which is currently closed to the public for a three-year refurbishment — has stated its board of trustees will meet to discuss what to do about the controversial bones.
Byrne’s story is a tragic one. Born in 1761 in what is now Northern Ireland, he experienced massive growth spurts due to acromegalic gigantism —the same condition that Andre the Giant lived with— which causes abnormal growth.
By early adulthood, Byrne’s towering size had made him become somewhat of a celebrity. He even went on a tour of the British Isles, amassing some money from presenting himself as a curiosity. But at the age of 22, he suffered a tuberculosis flare up, and his health began to fail.
Hunter, the London surgeon and anatomist, saw a scientific opportunity in Byrne’s failing health. He propositioned Byrne, telling him that he would pay to own his corpse. Horrified by the idea, Byrne instructed friends to bury him at sea when he died to prevent his bones from being taken by grave robbers.
Hunter was not the only one who wanted Byrne’s remains. When Byrne died in 1783, one contemporary newspaper account reported “a whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman,” adding that they gathered around his house “just as harpooners would an enormous whale.”
Though friends tried to carry out Byrne’s wishes — transporting his remains to the coastal town of Margate to be buried at sea — Byrne’s body was not in the casket. Instead, as the story goes, Hunter paid the undertaker 500 pounds to steal it and replace it with stones.
After Hunter defleshed and boiled the corpse, he stashed the bones away. Several years later, when Byrne had drifted out of public focus, Hunter revealed he had the bones. In 1799, Hunter's entire collection, including Byrne’s skeletal remains, was purchased by the Royal College of Surgeons, and soon after, Byrne’s bones went on display at the Hunterian.
The recent statement by the Royal College of Surgeons suggests that a new chapter may be coming in the bones’ long saga.
The museum has long held the position that the bones are important for long-term research and education. Since Byrne has no direct descendants, the museum has also pointed to support from individuals in a recent genetic study that traced Byrne’s genetics and those living with the same aryl hydrocarbon-interacting protein gene mutation in Northern Ireland today to a common ancestor. One 2013 museum panel included anonymized quotes from those individuals that spoke to the biomedical potential of the remains for diagnosis and treatment. “Byrne’s body has yielded us vital information in the understanding of this condition,” one said, according to Catherine Nash, professor of human geography at the University of London, in her 2018 paper Making kinship with human remains: Repatriation, biomedicine and the many relations of Charles Byrne.
However, Nash explains that Byrne could be genetically close or closer to thousands in Northern Ireland, Ireland and beyond if a larger survey of genetic diversity was conducted. “As is often the case in similar studies of genetic relatedness, an account of a shared ancestor produces an idea of distinctive ancestral connections within what would be a genealogical tangle of shared ancestry if viewed more widely,” she writes. “In this case, it is used to produce an idea of a distinctive degree of genetic connection that validates a position of authority in discussions of what should be done with the remains.”
Campaigners for burial also make the argument that Byrne’s DNA has already been sequenced and researchers could make an exact copy of his skeleton if need be. Additionally, they point out that there are other people suffering from acromegaly who have voluntarily offered to donate their bodies for science.
Thomas Muinzer, a law lecturer at the University of Stirling who has advocated for Byrne's burial for years, tells Ceimin Burke at TheJournal.ie that he believes the museum’s statement is the first time it has showed a willingness to discuss the issue of relinquishing the body. “This is a huge move on their part,” he says.