Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Skeleton of “the Irish giant”

We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 24 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e556
  1. Martin Smith, lecturer in biological anthropology1,
  2. Christopher Knüsel, associate professor of bioarchaeology2,
  3. Andrew Chamberlain, professor of biological anthropology3,
  4. Piers D Mitchell, affiliated lecturer in biological anthropology, consultant orthopaedic surgeon45
  1. 1School of Applied Sciences, Bournemouth University, Poole BH12 5BB, UK
  2. 2Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QE, UK
  3. 3Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S1 4ET, UK
  4. 4Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1QH, UK
  5. 5Peterborough City Hospital, Peterborough PE3 9GZ, UK
  1. mjsmith{at}

We do not share Doyal and Muinzer’s views on Charles Byrne.1 Most early pathology museum displays are grave robbed specimens, executed criminals, or the unclaimed dead from workhouses.2 3 Reburial cannot change this. Rather, museum displays highlight the fact that such things no longer occur because of changes in societal attitudes. Anatomical preparations formed the basis of modern medicine. There is no adequate substitute—replica or virtual—for studying actual bodily remains, especially unusual ones. If Byrne’s bones had been buried after Cushing’s study,4 Byrne’s DNA would never have recently been analysed.5 Moreover, Byrne’s relatives support continued display of his skeleton.

Charles Byrne wished to be buried at sea to avoid the fate of dissection, a practice that was stigmatised at the time. That stigma has, thankfully, dissipated, and reburial of Byrne’s remains would simply reflect a system of beliefs that do not accord with current views on the human body.

We disagree with the notion that display of remains is intrinsically disrespectful. Having visited the Hunterian Museum we cannot think of a more dignified repository for this important skeleton, or greater respect than can come from serving humankind by aiding advances in medical science. Modern medical ethics exist to protect living people. Applying such values retrospectively to people who died centuries ago is often inappropriate. Hunter’s actions were immoral by modern standards, but apologising for the deeds of others long dead just salves the consciences of the living and has no effect on the deceased. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. Dropping Charles Byrne’s bones into the sea will help no one—not even him.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e556


  • Competing interests: None declared.


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