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Hunterian Museum rejects requests for Charles Byrne’s skeleton to be buried at sea

More coverage of the (rejected) requests for the Hunterian Museum’s skeleton of Charles Byrne to be buried at sea [1].

Sydney Morning Herald [2]

UK museum to keep ‘giant’ skeleton
Tim Moynihan
December 23, 2011

British 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. Today Byrne’s skeleton is 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, in which excess growth hormone is produced, with the pituitary gland. This has enabled the diagnosis and early treatment of people with acromegaly.

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.”

They added that now Byrne’s DNA had been extracted, it could be used in further research.

“Equally, it is likely that, if given the opportunity to make an informed choice, living people with acromegaly will leave their bodies to research or participate in it while alive, or both.

“Finally, for the purposes of public education, a synthetic archetypical model of an acromegalic skeleton could be made and displayed.

“Indeed, such skeletons are now used in medical education throughout the world.”

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.

“A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA).

“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.”

Independent [3]

Theodore Dalrymple: Furore over giant ignores skeletons in the cupboard
By Theodore Dalrymple
Friday December 23 2011

Professor Marta Korbonits with the skeleton of the ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne, and Brendan Holland, who has the same gene that gives rise to gigantism.

As every schoolboy knows — or at any rate used to think he knew — the Victorians were a prudish lot. They covered their piano legs with leggings to act as a prophylactic against lewd thoughts; women wore clothes of many layers for the same reason.

There is, however, a law of the conservation of prudery, in Britain anyway. If we’re not prudish about one thing, we’re prudish about another. The Victorians did not conceal their prurience about what they did not hesitate to call freaks; they exhibited them in circuses and fairs (from which they derived an income, sometimes a large income); after their death, they pickled them, or parts of them, in bottles, or boiled them down for their skeletons.

Pathology museums everywhere in the country have their share of the anomalies that nature throws up. The Georgians and Victorians would probably have regarded our squeamishness with regard to these matters as morbid and symptomatic of our refusal to face an aspect of reality, a hypocritical desire to avert our eyes from the unpleasant.

The controversy now being stirred up about the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, now in the Hunterian Museum of London’s Royal College of Surgeons, would have struck them as absurd and a sign of overrefinement. Byrne was more than 8ft tall, all the more remarkable when 5ft 6in was a good height for a man. It was the great neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing who first suggested that he suffered from pituitary gigantism.

Byrne, driven to drink by his fame (or perhaps inclined to it anyway), feared to be exhibited after his death, and said that he wanted to be buried at sea in a lead coffin.

But his corpse was much sought after by the medical profession, and one observer wrote: “The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surrounded his house just as harpoonists would an enormous whale.” Hunter’s claim was successful: he paid £500 for Byrne’s body, an enormous sum at the time.

Thomas Muinzer, a legal academic in Belfast (Byrne was from Northern Ireland), says it is now time to honour Byrne’s last wishes and make retrospective amends for the continued unseemly display of his skeleton, which satisfies morbid curiosity without any intellectual or scientific purpose.

There is little doubt that Byrne’s wishes would be respected today. But is this a decisive argument? Does not the passage of time make a difference to the fidelity with which a man’s dying wishes are to be respected?

If the answer is no, it is not only Byrne’s skeleton that must be removed from public view, but every body or relic of those who may be presumed not to have wished for public exposure after death. The mummies in the British Museum (to say nothing of those in the Egyptian Museum) would have to be removed from the sight of the idly curious. It is true that the wishes of the mummified are not as precisely known as those of Charles Byrne, but it may be presumed that they did not desire the fate that befell them and it is likely that they would have been appalled had they known it.

– Theodore Dalrymple