As It Happens

'Irish Giant' may finally be buried after 200 years on display at museum

The skeleton of Charles Byrne, the "Irish Giant," could be buried in accordance with his final wish — at sea.

Charles Byrne, who had the genetic condition gigantism, wanted to be buried at sea

The skeleton, left, of Charles Byrne, nicknamed the Irish Giant, is displayed in London's Hunterian Museum in this undated photo. (Royal College of Surgeons/Associated Press)
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The "Irish Giant," who has been on display at the Hunterian Museum in London, may finally get a proper burial after more than two centuries. 

The skeleton belongs to Charles Byrne, who was born in Ireland in the 18th century and had gigantism, a condition of excessive size caused by an imbalance of growth hormones.

He stood at just over seven feet, seven inches tall, or about 2.31 metres.

"Of course back in those days the condition wasn't medically understood as it is now," Thomas Muinzer, a law professor at the University of Stirling, who is part of a group advocating for the release of the remains, told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

"He was simply a giant and there are all sorts of folkloric attributions attached to him."

Body snatcher stole corpse 

Byrne was a local celebrity and showman in London who knew that his body would be sought after by those in the medical community after his death.

Before he died in 1783 at just 22 years old, Byrne asked his friends to bury him at sea. But his plans never came to fruition.

"Before they could bury him, a dodgy undertaker in the pay of a surgeon successfully switched the corpse of Charles with dead weight," Muinzer said.

The surgeon who acquired Byrne's body was Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. After his death his entire collection became part of the Hunterian Museum of anatomical specimens.  

"In effect, the remains of Charles Byrne are now on display publicly in the memorial museum to the very person who stole his remains. There's a perverse irony there and it's quite tragic," Muinzer said.

Museum may release remains 

The museum has been under pressure to release the skeletal remains, but has argued that there is a scientific and educational benefit to continuing to display them.

But it may now finally fulfil the Irishman's wishes, more than 200 years later.

In a statement, the Royal College of Surgeons spokesperson said, "The Hunterian Museum will be closed until 2021 and Charles Byrne's skeleton is not currently on display. The board of trustees of the Hunterian Collection will be discussing the matter during the period of closure of the museum."

This is something that Muinzer has long been working toward, as part of the Free Charles Byrne project.

He said that the museum has argued in the past that Byrne's skeleton has irreplaceable scientific value, and that his bones have been used for research into the genetic condition of gigantism.

Although Muinzer agrees that the skeleton has scientific value, there are now other ways for scientists to study the skeleton.

He said there is a full DNA record of Byrne's skeleton, scientists have the ability to create an exact replica and there are people with the same genetic condition who are willing to donate their remains to science.

"If there is still scientific benefit to be gleaned from those remains, that doesn't make it OK to display those remains in the memorial museum to the person who snatched the body on its way to the funeral," Muinzer said.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Alison Broverman.

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