Skeleton in the Closet

Earlier this year a petition popped up on Change.org demanding a sea burial for Charles Byrne. The petition, started by US based Richard McKee, concerns a story which takes in freak shows, medical research, law and ethics. The story starts with a body snatching.

No. That’s not quite true.

The story starts with a body growing.

Charles Byrne was born an Irish peasant in 1761. By 1780 he had grown to a towering 7 feet 7 inches tall; more than two feet taller than an average man at the time.

By 1782 he was a feted celebrity and had even inspired a hit London stage show, but it was at about this time his health began to decline. At 22, Byrne knew he was dying and feared that after death his body would be stolen and put on display. In particular, he worried that leading surgeon and collector of medical curiosities, John Hunter, would get him.

Byrne made specific arrangements to avoid this fate. His friends promised to guard his body and bury him at sea in a lead lined coffin. After his death, Charles’s friends took his coffin to Margate and threw it into the sea, as he had requested.

Unfortunately, his body was not inside.

Hunter had bribed an undertaker to fill the coffin with rocks and deliver the corpse to his house, where he boiled it down to a skeleton. Four years later Hunter revealed that he had ‘the skeleton of an unusually tall man’ and began to show it along with his other medical curiosities.

Byrne’s skeleton is still in London and until earlier this year could be seen in a controversial display at the Hunterian Museum. It is now legally considered an object and is the property of the Hunterian Museum, but to Dr. Thomas Muinzer, a lecturer in law at Sterling University and expert on Byrne, the ethics of the case are clear:

“I don’t consider the display to meet acceptable moral standards for a variety of reasons. The first is the back story of how his body was procured – snatched on the way to his funeral and it is displayed as a freakish curiosity object, when the fact is that it’s the remains of a person who wanted burial and was thwarted in that. Also, there’s the perverse irony in that the surgeon involved in snatching the body was John Hunter, and that the Hunterian museum is a memorial museum to John Hunter.”

Muinzer and Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London called for Charles’ remains to finally be put to rest in 2012.

However, Hunterian Museum director Sam Alberti rejected the call, saying that the educational and research value of the remains outweighed the wishes of the deceased.

Is the display of Byrne’s body simply a reminder of how those who have power treat those who don’t? To a large extent it does seem that way, but Byrne’s remains have not only been displayed as a curiosity. A body of research has been conducted on his skeleton, giving insight into the condition which caused him to grow so tall. In 1909 The American surgeon Harvey Cushing discovered that Byrne’s gigantism had been caused by a pituitary tumour.

More recently, Dr Marta Korbonits, professor of endocrinology at Bart’s Hospital, London discovered a mutation in Byrne’s DNA which links him to four families in present day Northern Ireland. The research helped raise awareness and at least 18 families were diagnosed and treated for gigantism as a result. People with the mutation have a predisposition to developing a pituitary tumor which causes gigantism and if left untreated, an early death.

“Living people are a little bit more important than the dead,” Korbonits says, and goes on to explain how a particular family that she treated realised that they might be carriers of the gene as a direct consequence of hearing about her work on Byrne’s skeleton.

However, Muinzer argues that Byrne’s DNA has been taken and can be used in further research but that there is no further need to keep his skeleton.

Brendon Holland, one of Byrne’s distant relatives, also suffers from gigantism. Like Byrne, Holland travelled to England as a young man, and in 1972 he was referred to Bart’s Hospital and given treatment. He and others with gigantism, many of whom are also related to Byrne, are the main beneficiaries of research carried out on the skeleton.

Holland can see the arguments both for a sea burial and for keeping the skeleton. He says that although the procurement of the body was by today’s standards disgraceful, the standards of the time were different and that dissection, which at the time was associated with criminality, rather than display may have been Charles’ main fear.

“From a purely selfish point of view, of course, I would want the body to be kept, because we don’t know what secrets are still within it,” he says.

Holland also said that he would be happy for his body to be displayed and used in further research and perhaps this is where the compromise will come, as new consenting individuals put themselves forward for research.

The burden of the decision now lies with the Royal College of Surgeons.

Hunter’s collection is currently being rehomed, but will be back on display in autumn 2020. Dawn Kemp, interim director of Museums and Archives at the Hunterian stated that there is no change in their stance at present; ‘The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.’

The petition, for anyone who would like to sign it, is here.

Catherine Webb is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: Charles Byrne, hunteriancollection

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