The skeleton of an 18th-century celebrity nicknamed the ‘Irish Giant’ should be removed from a museum and buried at sea in keeping with his last wishes, two experts have argued, reviving a debate about the ethics of handling human remains.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, medical ethicist Len Doyal and legal researcher Thomas Muinzer said there is no good scientific reason to display the skeleton of Charles Byrne, who died in 1783, and a strong moral case against it.
“What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” the two men wrote. “Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne.”
Byrne stood about 7 feet, 7 inches (2.3 meters) tall as a result of acromegaly, a condition caused when a tumor on the pituitary gland stimulates an excess of growth hormone.
He became a celebrity in 18th-century London as the star turn in a museum of curiosities but died aged just 22.
Despite Byrne’s wish to be buried at sea, his body was purchased by pioneering surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, who often hired grave robbers to supply him with corpses. For two centuries Byrne’s skeleton has been on display at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London.
Doyal, of London’s Queen Mary University, and Muinzer, of Queen’s University Belfast, said that while Byrne’s skeleton had been of use to medical research, that was no reason to put it on public display.
“Moreover, now that Byrne’s DNA has been extracted, it can be used in further research,” they wrote.
The museum’s director, Sam Alberti, conceded Thursday there was a “powerful moral argument” for respecting Byrne’s wishes. But he said that was outweighed by the skeleton’s continuing benefit to medical research.
“Patients with the condition today live long and much happier lives,” Alberti said — in part due to knowledge gleaned from Byrne’s DNA.
Byrne’s skeleton has helped scientists identify several dozen people in Ireland with the same genetic mutation — all believed to be related to Byrne through a common ancestor.
One of them, Brendan Holland, says the skeleton should remain — and he thinks Byrne would agree.
“What would his view be if he knew what we know now?” Holland said in a video for the British Medical Journal website. “He would almost certainly agree with my view that this is the right thing to do today.”