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Bury this giant at sea…finally

Charles Byrne's remains at the Royal College of Surgeons


An Irish ‘giant’ kept in the Royal College of Surgeons for more than100 years may finally get his last wish and have his remains buried at sea. Eight foot tall Charles Byrne’s skeleton has been on display at the Hunterian Museum in the London college for almost 200 years, despite his request to be buried on the water in a lead coffin when he passed away. The skeleton of the ‘giant’ born in Co. Derry in 1761, who suffered a growth disorder from youth, has played an  important role in the work of surgeons investigating the Acromegaly condition and other growth abnormalities over the years. But lawyer Thomas Muinzer, of Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Law, claims it’s time he got the send-off he requested before his death at the age of 22. In a piece published in the British Medical Journal this week, Mr Muinzer and Len Doyal, a professor of medical ethics in London’s Queen Mary University, argue the case to lay the lofty Irishman to rest once and for all. “The Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons’ possession of Byrne’s skeleton may have led to beneficial medical outcomes,” they said. “However, as a justification for not burying his skeleton, that case is no longer tenable. Past research on Byrne did not require the display of his skeleton; merely medical access to it. Moreover, now that Byrne’s DNA has been extracted, it can 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.” Mr Byrne was born with an excessive growth hormone and his skeleton suggests he was roughly 7 feet 7 inches tall when he died. As a youngster Byrne acquired a manager and was exhibited for money as a ‘curiosity’, which led him to London in 1780. While in Britain he caught the attention of the pre-eminent surgeon and anatomist of the time, John Hunter, who was determined to possess Byrne’s corpse for research purposes upon his demise. Aware of Mr Hunter’s intentions, Byrne told friends he wanted his body sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea upon his death. Unfortunately when Byrne passed away in 1783 Mr Hunter managed to bribe one of his said friends and took possession of his body en route to the water. The report writers are now insisting he be given his final wish and have his bones removed from their display case and finally sent along the water. “The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” they state. “Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne, the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death.”

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