Skeleton of man known as ‘Irish Giant’ will be removed from museum display
The skeleton of Charles Byrne, on display in the Hunterian Museum Credit: Hunterian Collection Trustee
Byrne had an undiagnosed benign tumor of the pituitary gland. As a result, his body produces too much growth hormone, causing conditions called acromegaly and gigantism – meaning his bones grow much larger than normal. He was 7 feet, 7 inches tall.
In the later stages of his life, Byrne made a living presenting himself as the “Irish Giant”. He died in 1783, and RCS says there are documents proving that he wanted to be buried at sea to prevent his body from being captured by anatomists.
Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of John Hunter will be on display in the museum.
Credit: Hunterian Museum/Royal College of Surgeons
However, the museum’s founder, surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, paid Byrne’s friends to deliver his body, and three years later he displayed the skeleton in his museum. himself, then located in London’s Leicester Square. Byrne’s leg bones stand out against the backdrop of the famous portrait painter Joshua Reynolds’ painting The Hunter.
The portrait will now be on display in the newly renovated museum for the first time in more than 200 years, in place of the skeleton.
A press release from RCS confirmed the decision to remove Byrne’s skeleton from the collection, which also features surgical instruments, models and archives that trace the history of surgery from antiquity to to the latest robotic-assisted surgeries.
It said: “During the closing of the Museum, the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection discussed the sensitivities and different perspectives surrounding the display and preservation of the skeleton of Charles Byrne. The staff has agreed that Charles Byrne’s skeleton will not be displayed in the Hunterian Museum, which has been redeveloped but remains available for genuine medical research into pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.”
They wrote: “Byrne was terrified of Hunter, who used grave robbers (‘revivalists’) to provide him with illegally exhumed bodies. As Hunter was known for his collecting unusual specimens for his private museum, Byrne was concerned that Hunter wanted his body to be dissected and possibly exhibited.”
They continued: “Byrne told friends that when he died, his body should be sealed in a lead coffin and buried in the sea. When Hunter found out, he bribed one of them. and when the friends stopped overnight on the way to bury Byrne in the English Channel, his body was replaced with heavy objects. Thus, Hunter obtained the body.”
In a more detailed statement released by the museum, the trustees said of their decision: “John Hunter (1728-1793) and other anatomists and surgeons of the 18th century and 19 obtained many specimens in a way that we would not consider ethical today and that is the right subject for review and discussion.”
RCS adds that a new program called Hunterian Provocations will begin this fall to promote new research and explore issues around the display of human remains and specimen collection during the opening British colonial expansion.