Earlier this month the Royal College of Surgeons, in London, announced that it will remove from the display cases of the Hunterian Museum the skeleton of a 7-foot, 7-inch man who died in 1783.
Charles Byrne was a celebrity in late 18th century London. “The Irish Giant” was born in County Derry but moved to London. There he was ogled by surgeons and anatomists. Byrne realised that he was, in their eyes, a valuable freak and specifically directed that he was to be buried at sea. However, his wishes were thwarted by the famous surgeon John Hunter, who stole the body, reduced it to a skeleton, and set it up for display in his private museum. The lugubrious story was the subject of a novel by the late Hilary Mantel, The Giant, O’Brien.
For the last 20 years, several people, including Mantel, have been campaigning to remove the skeleton from the museum. The museum has now agreed to transfer the skeleton to a storage area and to make it available only for “bona fide medical research”. The problem is that the museum is constrained by the terms of Hunter’s will, which specifies that his collection must be kept intact.
This has angered some campaigners for O’Brien’s burial.
“I don’t want to be part of this move on social media to polarise the debate, because I think it’s nuanced, [and] it’s really important,” says Dawn Kemp, the Dawn Kemp, the director of Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons. “The wrong has been done to Byrne in 1783, we’re not going to right it by making a quick decision now.”
But Len Doyal, a medical ethicist, says: “There’s no need for the Hunterian to keep this body. Byrne’s original wish was to be buried at sea. That’s what he wanted, that’s what he should get.”