London Museum Withdraws ‘Irish Giant’ From Display

Campaigners have welcomed a decision to remove the skeleton of an 18th century man with gigantism from public display at a London museum.

The remains of Charles Byrne, who was 2.31 meters (7ft 7in), had been on show at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in central London.

But the museum has said the self-styled “Irish Giant” will not be part of the collection when it reopens in March after a five-year, £4.6-million ($5.7-million) refurbishment.

Thomas Muinzer, a senior law lecturer at Aberdeen University in Scotland, called the decision “wonderful news”.

But he said the development was only a “partial success”, as Byrne himself wanted to be buried at sea, to prevent anatomists using him for study.

In 2011, Muinzer and Len Doyal, a medical ethicist, published a paper in the British Medical Journal, calling for Byrne’s final wishes to be respected.

“Byrne’s remains ought to be buried at sea or at least be withdrawn from public display,” they wrote.

The British writer Hilary Mantel, who died last year and wrote a 1998 fictionalized portrait of Byrne called “The Giant”, had also backed the campaign.

RCS England said last week that trustees of the collection had discussed the “sensitivities” of keeping and displaying Byrne’s skeleton during the closure.

The skeleton was acquired after Byrne’s death aged 22 in 1783 by the eminent surgeon and anatomist John Hunter.

Before he could be buried, Hunter paid Byrne’s friends £500 — the equivalent of £60,000 today — for his body.

The decision comes as museums in the UK and around the world are reassessing the provenance of their collections.

The Hunterian is due to begin a new program later this year “to promote new research and explore issues around the display of human remains and the acquisition of specimens” during the British colonial period.

Hunter and others in the 18th and 19th century “acquired many specimens in ways we would not consider ethical today”, it added.

A decision has been made to only make the skeleton only available for “bona fide medical research” into gigantism.

Muinzer said it had already been extensively studied and its complete DNA extracted, but scientific understanding of the condition remains limited and people still suffer from it today.

As a result, Byrne’s last wishes — which RCS England said are well-documented but anecdotal — should be respected, he added.

“We don’t have to worry about the resurrectionists and grave robbers now thank goodness,” he added.


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