AGAINST HIS WISHES

After 240 years a man known as the “Irish Giant” will finally be removed from a display he never wanted to be a part of in the first place. In life, Charles Byrne stood 7 foot, 7 inches – hence his nickname. His height was attributed to an undiagnosed tumor of the pituitary gland which produced too much growth hormone. Byrne made his living by traveling around and exhibiting himself as the “Irish Giant.” Prior to his death at just 22 years old, Byrne made his wishes crystal clear documenting he wanted to be buried at sea, specifically to prevent his body from being taken by anatomists that seemingly followed him around waiting for him to drop dead. Specifically, John Hunter, who was King George III’s personal surgeon and a celebrated scientist. When Byrne finally passed away on June 1, 1783 a newspaper from the time said “A whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman, surrounding his house just as harpooners would an enormous whale.” What Byrne had hoped to prevent came true when John Hunter made arrangements to have Byrne’s body stolen from his coffin and replaced it with stones. Byrne was then taken to London where Hunter removed his organs, eviscerated his flesh and boiled the remainder from his bones, readying his skeleton for display. When Hunter himself passed away in 1793, his collection, including Byrne’s skeleton, was transferred to the Royal College of Surgeons where it would continually be displayed for more than two centuries. Over the years, scientists researching Byrne’s remains made headway in their research of various diseases but the decision to finally remove his skeleton from display came after the Royal College of Surgeons Trustees had a change of heart and agreed that “Charles Byrne’s skeleton will not be displayed in the redeveloped Hunterian Museum but will still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.” A portrait of Charles Byrne will be hung where his skeleton once stood but his remains will still be housed at the museum, and not buried at sea, forever against his wishes.

photo credit: Creative Commons

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