x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A 200-year-old giant's wish to be buried at sea

Charles Byrne, an Irishman whose 2.34 metre-tall frame made him a celebrity in Georgian London in the 1780s, but his corpse was bought for medical tests.

The skeleton of Charles Bryne, dubbed “The Irish Giant”, stands at 2.3 metres tall in the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons in London, England.
The skeleton of Charles Bryne, dubbed “The Irish Giant”, stands at 2.3 metres tall in the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons in London, England.

LONDON // He was regarded as a freak in life...and a medical curiosity in death. Now, more than two centuries after "the Irish giant" died, a campaign has started to finally have his body laid to rest.

Indeed, one of the last requests of Charles Byrne, an Irishman whose 2.34 metre-tall frame made him a celebrity in Georgian London in the 1780s, was that he be buried at sea, so fearful was he that physicians would want to dissect his remains.

But that final wish was never honoured. Instead, a pioneering surgeon called John Hunter bought the corpse off one of Byrne's friends and, after the flesh and organs were boiled off, his skeleton was put on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where it remains to this day.

Now, two academics - Thomas Muinzer, from the school of law at Queen's University Belfast, and Len Doyal, professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary College, University of London - are demanding in January's edition of the British Medical Journal that it is time for the giant's final wish be granted.

"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 write.

"Surely, it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death."

The pair argue that, as there is now a full record of Byrne's DNA which could be used in future medical research, there is no point in keeping the skeleton for scientific reasons.

Mr Muinzer added: "As a sign of respect for Byrne's original desires, his skeleton should be buried at sea as part of a ceremony commemorating his life.

"We have reached the limit of what that skeleton can teach us. With burial law, when you or I stipulate burial wishes in life, we rely on those wishes to be respected. Those wishes don't have legal force - they have moral force."

However, Sam Alberti, the museum director, is adamant that the Irish giant's skeleton should remain where it is, saying it could still offer a lot to science as well as serving as an educational tool to museum visitors.

"A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into familial isolated pituitary adenoma (benign pituitary tumours that run in families and can accelerated growth)," he said.

"This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum.

"At the present time, the museum's trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains."

It was only five years ago that a rare gene mutation that could cause great height was discovered. A group of scientists, led by Dr Marta Korbonits, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the London School of Medicine, had two of Byrne's teeth analysed and discovered that it was, in fact, this mutation that has led to his great height as well as growth problems in 21st century relatives of his.

However, few doubt that, despite the skeleton's value to science, Byrne would have detested his body being used for research. He so dreaded it, in fact, that it was why he said he wanted to be buried at sea.

According to one version of events, when he died of alcoholic poisoning in 1783 - little more than a year after he had come to London to find fame and fortune in a freak show - a group of friends transported his body to the south coast of England planning to tip him into the English Channel.

But Hunters' agents struck, it is said, and got the friends drunk, enabling them to substitute stones in the coffin bearing Byrne's body.

A more prosaic version of events is that Hunter, regarded as one of the fathers of modern surgery, had paid £500 (Dh2,863) - a princely sum in those days - to a friend who had been put in charge of caring for the body.

Either way, the remains of Charles Byrne, which were supposed to buried at sea, remain very much land-locked to this day.

dsapsted@thenational.ae