'Irish Giant' Will Be Taken Off Display in London Museum

Charles Byrne wanted to be buried at sea after 1783 death
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 11, 2023 4:37 PM CST
Museum Is Removing Skeleton of 'Irish Giant'
The skeleton, center, on display in 2007.   (Wikipedia/StoneColdCrazy)

For more than 200 years, the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the "Irish Giant," was on display in the last place he wanted it to end up: the collection of British surgeon John Hunter. But the 7-foot, 7-inch Irishman's wishes will finally be respected this year. London's Royal College of Surgeons of England says that when the Hunterian Museum reopens in March, Byrne's skeleton, its most famous exhibit, will not be on display, CNN reports. Byrne, who died in London in 1783 at age 22, was famous for his height but "was gripped with fear of Hunter" and worried that the surgeon would dissect him and display his remains in his collection of unusual biological specimens, ethicist Len Doyal and lawyer Thomas Muinzer wrote in the British Medical Journal in 2011.

"Byrne told friends that when he died his body should be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea. When Hunter found out he managed to bribe one of them and when the friends stopped overnight on their way to bury Byrne in the English Channel, his body was replaced with heavy objects. Hunter thus acquired the body," wrote Doyal and Muinzer, who argued that the body should be taken off display—and buried at sea. Researchers determined that Byrne's height was caused by a benign tumor of his pituitary gland. The RCS said that while Byrne's skeleton won't be on display when the museum reopens after being closed for renovations for five years, it "will still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism."

The late novelist Hilary Mantel, who wrote a fictionalized account of Byrne's life in The Giant, O'Brien, was among those who called for the skeleton to be removed from display, the Irish Times reports. "I think that science has learned all it can from the bones, and the honorable thing now is lay him to rest," she wrote in 2018. Distant relative Brendan Holland, however, tells the BBC that the skeleton should remain available for medical research. "It has benefited the living, those with the condition now know why they have it and how to treat it," and if Byrne was alive he would probably agree, says Holland. The 70-year-old has the same pituitary condition as Byrne, but he stopped growing at 6 feet, 10 inches after radiation treatments. (More giant stories.)

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