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12th Jan 2023

Unethically obtained skeleton of ‘Irish Giant’ to be removed from London museum

Fiona Frawley

museum with skeleton of the 'Irish Giant' on display

Hunterian Museum has said that the manner in which Charles Byrne’s body was acquired was unethical and against his wishes.

The skeleton of ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne who was from Littlebridge, Co Derry has been removed from display at the Hunterian Museum in London.

Charles, who died in the 18th century was famous in his time and thought to be one of the tallest men in the world at 7ft 7in.

His skeleton has been on public display for centuries at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, which has been closed for the last five years for redevelopment.

Confirming the news, the museum said the skeleton would remain available for “bona fide medical research”, meaning it can be viewed by doctors interested in pituitary acromegaly, the condition that Byrne suffered from, and giantism.

Byrne was “treated like a freak show when he was alive“, and had asked to be buried at sea in the event of his death so as not to be seized by body snatchers.

His requests were ignored, and when he died aged 22 in June 1783 John Hunter, the founder of the museum that bears his name, paid £500 for his corpse. He put Charles’s skeleton on display four years after his death.

Hunter was “known for collecting and displaying unique specimens for his museum”.

Ethical questions about the display of the skeleton have been raised multiple times and there have been frequent calls for the skeleton to be returned to Derry, or for burial at sea.

One such call came from the late Dame Hilary Mantel, who published a fictionalised account of Byrne’s life. Speaking to the Guardian in 2020, she said “It’s time Charles went home.”

“I think that science has learned all it can from the bones, and the honourable thing now is lay him to rest,” she added.

Byrne’s distant relative Brendan Holland, who has also been diagnosed with giantism said he was pleased with the outcome, and that “It was never appropriate to have him tied up literally. It was unedifying that he was being displayed like that.”
Header image via Wikipedia