London Museum Removes ‘Irish Giant’ Skeleton From Display
LONDON — Charles Byrne never wanted to end up in a museum.
Byrne, who stood at least 7 feet 7 inches tall, had found fame and wealth in 18th-century Britain by showcasing himself as the “Irish Giant.” People from Edinburgh to London would pay to gawk at his height, and, legend has it, by the time he died at in 1783, at the age of 22, he had told his friends to bury him at sea to prevent surgeons or anatomists from obtaining his body.
He didn’t get that wish. Instead, John Hunter, an 18th-century British surgeon and anatomist, paid Byrne’s friends 500 pounds for his skeleton, which joined hundreds of plant and animal specimens on display in Hunter’s home in London’s Leicester Square. It became the centerpiece of a collection that eventually formed the Hunterian Museum, which in modern times has seen more than 80,000 people a year pass through its doors.
Now, more than two centuries later, the Hunterian’s board of trustees announced this month that it was granting at least part of Byrne’s wish: When the museum reopens in March after a five-year renovation, his skeleton, one of its most famous exhibits, will no longer be on display.
“What happened historically and what Hunter did was wrong,” said Dawn Kemp, a director at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, of which the Hunterian Museum is now part. “How do you redress some of these historical wrongs? The first step is to take Byrne’s skeleton off display.”
But what to do with it next is a less simple decision.
There’s no written account of Byrne’s wishes, according to the Hunterian Museum. Not a lot is known about his family beyond his origins in a rural area of Northern Ireland. In 1781, when he was 20, Byrne moved to London, deciding to become a showman.
During his life, Byrne remained a medical mystery. At the time, one popular theory for his height was that he was conceived on top of a haystack, according to a 2012 documentary. Since then, scientists who have studied his skeleton have determined that he had a tumor that caused acromegaly and gigantism, conditions in which the body produces too much growth hormone.
“It’s a nuanced situation,” Ms. Kemp said. If the skeleton can be useful for understanding and improving human health, the benefits to the living must be considered, she said.
Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize-winning author who died last year, used Byrne’s story for her 1998 novel, “The Giant, O’Brien.” In 2020, Ms. Mantel called for the repatriation of Byrne’s skeleton to Ireland. “I think that science has learned all it can from the bones, and the honorable thing now is to lay him to rest,” she told The Guardian.
But some researchers disagree, because of the ever-developing nature of medical knowledge. To that end, the museum has said it would keep the skeleton in storage and that it would be available for “bona fide research.”
“We shouldn’t think that we now know everything,” said Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London, who has researched Byrne’s genes.
The research “isn’t done and dusted,” she added.
Indeed, Byrne’s skeleton has offered up new answers as medicine has evolved. In 1909, an American surgeon studied Byrne’s remains, and discovered that he had a tumor in his brain. Then, about a century later, researchers including Dr. Korbonits extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he also had a rare genetic mutation that had been unknown until 2006.
“Without the public view, we wouldn’t have made that link,” Dr. Korbonits said.
Since that discovery, in 2011, she said that researchers had been able to identify people with the same genetic mutation as Byrne’s and help prevent the condition in them through preventive screenings, especially among children who hadn’t yet exhibited any symptoms.
“A lot of people benefited from this research,” Dr. Korbonits said.
Human remains are subject to Britain’s 2004 Human Tissue Act, which only allows the public display of remains that are more than 100 years old.
But thinking about how to display them is a developing process, said Rebecca Whiting, a bioarchaeology researcher at the British Museum, which has more than 6,000 human remains, some dating to 13,000 BC
Visitors are accustomed to seeing human remains in the museum, she said, and see the benefits of the stories that skeletons can tell about the past, both culturally and scientifically.
Other museums have grappled recently with the ethics surrounding human remains. In 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, decided to remove all human remains from its gallery, because it said the displays enforced racist stereotypes. The discussion comes as part of a wider debate in European museums about what to do with human remains that were removed without consent from their countries of origin.
“There are a lot of ethical obligations that we have to be mindful of when it comes to human remains,” Ms. Whiting said, but “that doesn’t mean people don’t see the value in displaying them.”
At the Hunterian Museum, Byrne’s skeleton was a centerpiece of its collection, and over the years visitors responded to it with awe, Ms. Kemp, the director at the museum, said. “It’s the closest you’ll be to looking inside yourself.”