As Charles Byrne lay dying, he knew that a famous surgeon wanted his corpse.
The surgeon, John Hunter, got his body anyway, and Byrne’s skeleton has been on display in a London museum for more than two centuries. After a decade of public outcry, the Royal College of Surgeons of England, which owns the museum, has announced a new plan for its “best-known human anatomical specimen.” The museum has been closed for renovation for several years; when it reopens, Byrne’s skeleton will no longer be on display, it said.
“John Hunter and other anatomists and surgeons of the 18th and 19th centuries acquired many specimens in ways we would not consider ethical today and which are rightly subject to review and discussion,” the museum said. It maintained that the skeleton should still be made available for research and would not be buried at sea.
Byrne was born in 1761 and raised in a rural area bordering County Londonderry and County Tyrone, now in Northern Ireland. Little is known of his parents except that they were of average height, and by the time he was a teenager he towered above them, according to a 2011 BBC documentary, “Charles Byrne: An Fathach Éireannach/The Irish Giant.”
He made one of his first recorded public appearances in the fall of 1780. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, many British soldiers living in Ireland had been sent to North America to fight, so local volunteer militias were stood up to defend the area against possible attack by the Americans’ ally, France. Byrne joined one of these militias and led a parade through Stewartstown, according to the documentary.
Byrne soon left for Scotland and England, where he guessed rightly that a fortune awaited him in show business as a “curiosity.” In Edinburgh, he impressed night watchmen by lighting his pipe with a streetlamp. He passed through Manchester, Leeds and Derby, advertising in newspapers and entertaining spectators with his booming voice and friendly disposition.
By the time he arrived in London months later, he was already famous — and wealthy. There he joined society. People paid to meet him in his increasingly well-appointed apartments, and he was a popular guest at parties. London newspapers wrote of his friendliness and joked he was so tall because he was conceived on top of a haystack.
During this time, Hunter became “obsessed” with Byrne and a desire to dissect him, according to the documentary. Knowing that people with gigantism often died young, Hunter offered to buy his corpse. When Byrne declined, Hunter paid to have him followed, so he could get updates on his health.
Byrne carried much of his wealth on his person, which was not uncommon at the time, and one night, allegedly while he was passed out from drinking, robbers stole everything he had. Before he could make his fortune over again, he fell ill, perhaps caused by whatever condition was causing him to keep growing, or alcoholism, or tuberculosis, or some combination of all three.
Medical ethics were not really a thing back then, and surgeons and medical students on both sides of the Atlantic were notorious graverobbers. Typical targets were deceased prisoners and the poor — and, in the United States, African American cemeteries — but scientists like Hunter were also interested in bodies with unusual conditions, like pregnancy, dwarfism and gigantism.
To be dissected after death was considered “a mark of infamy,” according to University of Galway historian Breandán Mac Suibhne in the documentary, and Byrne tried to stop this from happening to him. He made friends promise to take his body to a coastal town and bury him at sea in a heavy coffin.
His plan did not succeed. Three years later, Byrne’s skeleton was on display at Hunter’s museum of unusual anatomy, which is now called the Hunterian Museum.
How Byrne’s last wishes were thwarted is a subject of some debate. Law professor Thomas Muinzer, who has long advocated for Byrne’s last wishes to be carried out, claims Hunter paid the undertaker to give him the body and perform a fake burial at sea with a coffin full of stones. The Royal College calls this “exaggerated” on its website and says it is more likely that Hunter simply paid off Byrne’s friends, who, it claims, were already displaying the body for their own gain. It also says Hunter “prepared” the skeleton for display — a mild description for boiling the body in a huge cauldron to loosen and strip the flesh from the bones.
The decision to remove the skeleton from display comes as many museums and colleges are reconsidering their acquisition and ownership of human remains. Harvard University has been accused of drawing out the return of more than 7,000 remains of Indigenous and enslaved people. The Field Museum in Chicago, the Natural History Museum in London and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have committed to repatriation of human remains in recent years.
In 2002, France returned the remains of Sarah Baartman to South Africa. Baartman had a substantial amount of tissue on her buttocks, perhaps caused by lipedema, and was displayed in Europe as a sexualized curiosity while alive. After her death in 1815, her brain, genitals and skeleton were removed and preserved as medical specimens. Her skeleton and a cast of her body were on display in French museums until the 1970s.
In recent decades, DNA tests have shown Byrne carried a gene mutation that can cause tumors near the pituitary gland, which in turn causes extreme growth, called acromegaly. This mutation may be more common in this area of Northern Ireland: Only a few decades after Byrne’s death, another extremely tall Irishman named Patrick Cotter became a star in London as another “Irish Giant.” Today, about several hundred people with acromegaly live in County Tyrone.
That includes Brendan Holland, who participated in the BBC documentary and who was found to be distantly related to Byrne. Holland has credited the doctors who have done research on Byrne’s skeleton in recent decades with treating his condition and extending his life. On learning Byrne’s skeleton would no longer be displayed but would still be available for research, Holland told RTE News it was the right call.
“We can’t do anything for dead people, but we can help those who are alive and have this condition,” he said.
Muinzer first learned about Byrne and his skeleton in a property law class while attending the University of Belfast. For decades, he has pushed for Byrne’s burial, along with medical ethicist Len Doyal and the late author Hilary Mantel, who wrote a novel based on Byrne’s life. They have argued that since Byrne’s DNA has been extracted and his skeleton extensively measured and photographed, there’s little scientific value to be gained from continuing to refuse his last wishes.
“It’s wonderful” that the museum is now recognizing the “insensitivity” of displaying Byrne’s skeleton, Muinzer wrote on Twitter, adding that “the next step — the burial he wanted — would be even better.”