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Feature Christmas 2011: Death’s Dominion

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

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 20 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7597

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

Retained organ scandals have caused much pain in many countries (1) and should prompt intense reflection among doctors as to how these arose. Doyal and Muinzer have pointed to a possible contributor to this professional insensitivity to the human body after death (2): the continuing exposure of generations of medical students to bodies displayed against the dead person’s clear pre-mortem wish is unlikely to promote due sensitivity. Learning to appreciate and respect for the wishes of those who have died extends to more than their corporeal remains, and includes an ongoing need to respect doctor-patient confidentiality (3).

A similarly jarring note was struck at a recent and otherwise excellent public display in Ireland celebrating the tercentenary of the medical school of Trinity College Dublin (4). The exhibition included the acromegalic skeleton of equally unhappy provenance. Cornelius Magrath was an Irish giant whose body was snatched after his death in 1760 by Trinity medical students who had ‘befriended’ him. It is hard to justify the retention of his remains on historical or ethical grounds, the procurement and retention of his body redolent of a medical paternalism towards the human body that we hope is increasingly relegated to the past.

For both cases, replicas would serve equally well, samples for DNA have already been taken for international collaborative studies, and a respectful disposal of their remains in keeping with current protocol for donated bodies, and previously expressed wishes where known, would seem to be the least that modern thinking in bioethics would demand: a memorial stone in the grounds of the educational institutions might also serve as a marker of both atonement and recognition of the evolution of professional sensibilities.

In addition students and doctors might be helpfully directed to the remarkable, if bizarre, cabinet at University College London where the remains of Jeremy Bentham are on view in a large wooden cabinet. In a helpful antithesis to the insensitivity shown to Byrne and Magrath after their deaths, they can witness an impressive display of fidelity to Bentham’s wishes whereby his beloved university acceded to the request in his will for this display (5).

Such measures would reassure the public that, unlike the Bourbons, the medical profession has the capacity to both learn and forget in due measure.

1. Madden D. Report on Post Mortem Practice and Procedures. Dublin, Stationery Office, 2005.
2.Doyal L, Muinzer T. Should the skeleton of “the Irish giant” be buried at sea? BMJ 2011; 343 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d7597
3. Robinson DJ, O'Neill D. Access to health care records after death: balancing confidentiality with appropriate disclosure. JAMA. 2007;297:634-6.
4. School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin. Exhibition Catalogue “The best doctors in the world are Dr Diet, Dr Quiet and Dr Merryman”: The School of Medicine 1711–2011. Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, 2011 (accessed 21 December 2011)
5. Marmoy CF. The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham at University College, London. Med Hist 1958;2:77-86.

Competing interests: No competing interests

21 December 2011
Desmond O'Neill
Professor of Medical Gerontology
Trinity College Dublin
Trinity Centre for Health Sciences, Adelaide and Meath Hospital, Dublin 24, Ireland