Christmas 2011: Death’s Dominion

Should the skeleton of “the Irish giant” be buried at sea?

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d7597 (Published 20 December 2011)
Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7597

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  1. Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics1,
  2. Thomas Muinzer, lawyer2
  1. 1Queen Mary, University of London, UK
  2. 2School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland
  1. Correspondence to: L Doyal l.doyal{at}qmul.ac.uk

It’s not too late to grant Charles Byrne’s wish, argue Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer

The skeleton of Charles Byrne, the famous “Irish giant,” has been displayed at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons for almost 200 years. It played an important part in linking acromegaly with the pituitary gland. In 1909 the American surgeon Harvey Cushing removed the top of Byrne’s skull and observed an enlarged pituitary fossa, confirming a relation between the disease and adenoma. This finding has enabled the diagnosis and early treatment of people with acromegaly. At the beginning of this year, further important research led by Marta Korbonits used the DNA from two of Byrne’s molars to establish a genetic link between him and several people from a particular area of Northern Ireland.1 2 Aside from giving those susceptible to the disease the opportunity for appropriate medical care, this link perhaps helps to explain the long tradition of mythology about giants in Irish history.

Just as Byrne himself did when alive, so his skeleton continues to entertain the public.3 We believe that it should now be removed from display and buried at sea, as Byrne intended for himself. Others have expressed similar although not necessarily identical views.4 5 6 7 Byrne’s burial wish was not fulfilled because the pre-eminent surgeon and anatomist of the time, John Hunter, was determined to possess Byrne’s cadaver for his own purposes.8

Byrne and Hunter

The authors discuss the fate of the skeleton in a 15-minute video about acromegaly and Charles Byrne's life

Video

Byrne was born in County Londonderry (part of a unified Ireland) in 1761. From a young age it was clear that he had a growth disorder. Historical accounts of his size vary, but his skeleton suggests he was about 7 feet 7 inches …

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