Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2011: Death’s Dominion

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

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

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

The recommendation by Doyal and Muinzer that the Royal College of Surgeons and the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection dispose of the skeleton of Charles Byrne is an articulate contribution to the on-going ethical discussion around the retention of historic human remains (1,2), the majority of which were acquired in ways that would not satisfy twenty-first-century ethical standards. Although the historical evidence is not clear-cut – relying on newspapers and a third-hand account (3) – it is likely, because of the associated stigma, that Byrne was uncomfortable at the prospect of dissection. Having inherited custody of the remains, and there being no legal case to answer, the Board and College have again considered the moral case by comparing any benefit of destructive disposal with the value of retention.

A vivid demonstration of the latter can be found in the outcomes of the research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (4) which sparked the authors’ interest in this case. The authors’ suggestion that all possible scientific benefit has been gleaned is not shared by researchers in relevant fields. Benefits include not only tangible clinical outcomes but also the identification of shared genes between Byrne and living communities. Among these are individuals who live with the same condition, who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display. Given their shared ancestry with Byrne, particular credence has been given to these individuals’ wishes.

The authors recommend that the skeleton be removed from publicly accessible display and replaced with a replica. This would deny the Hunterian Museum’s inclusive audiences the experience of studying the authentic remains as part of a coherent historical collection, in the present dignified and informative context (in which Byrne’s likely discomfort is openly acknowledged).

Doyal and Muinzer’s case is compelling. So too, however, is the argument that in accordance with the wishes of genetically connected individuals, Charles Byrne’s remains be retained to advance our understanding of rare conditions and to benefit contemporary communities. In full compliance with the College’s Acquisition and Disposal Policy the skeleton will therefore remain on display. New historical evidence, legislation or research outcomes will of course be monitored.

References

1. Jones DG and Whitaker MI. Speaking for the dead: The human body in biology and medicine. 2nd ed. 2009. Farnham: Ashgate.

2. Alberti SJMM, Bienkowski B, Chapman MJ, and Drew R. Should we display the dead? Museum and Society. 2009; 7 (3): 133-149.

3. Taylor, T. Leicester Square; its associations and its worthies. 1874. London: Bickers.

4. Chahal H, Stals K, Unterländer M, Balding DJ, Thomas MG, Kumar AV, et al. AIP mutation in pituitary adenomas in the 18th century and today. N Engl J Med 2011;364:43-50.

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 February 2012
Samuel J M M Alberti
Director of Museums and Archives
The Royal College of Surgeons of England
35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE