The skeletal remains of the ‘Irish Giant’ at the Hunterian

The 7'7" tall skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, on display at the Hunterian Museum.

The 7’7″ tall skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, on display at the Hunterian Museum.

Charles Byrne (1761–1783) worked as a “freak” known as “the Irish Giant” at the Cox Museum in London in the 1780’s.   It was rumored that he was so tall that he could light his pipe from a street lamp.  During his short life he became famous and wealthy, and was received by the King and Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.  But he turned to alcohol to cope with this newfound notoriety, and died at the young age of 22.

Before his death Charles Byrne left instructions to have his body buried at sea, because he wanted to make sure it didn’t end up the property of surgeons and scientists.   He was particularly worried that John Hunter, the king’s surgeon, would steal his body, and with good reason.  Hunter’s agents bribed someone to remove the body from the coffin while the funeral party was in a pub, and replaced it with paving stones.  Today, Byrne’s 7’7” skeleton is displayed in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

In 1909, a surgeon name Harvey Cushing studied Byrne’s skeletal remains and found the cause of his gigantism.   Gigantism is caused by an over-production of growth hormone in childhood resulting in excessive growth and height significantly above average (between 7 feet and 9 feet tall).

Cushing found that the area where the pituitary gland rests, the pituitary fossa (or the hypophyseal fossa of the sphenoid) was enlarged in Byrne’s skull.  In 2011, British and German researchers extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he had a rare genetic mutation, only discovered in 2006, that causes pituitary tumors, confirming Cushings earlier findings.

Gigantism is characterized by excessive growth and height, and is caused by an overproduction of growth hormone, which results in people measuring between 7 and 9 feet tall.  The physical effects of pituitary gigantism include sleep apnea, joint pain, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, insulin resistance, as well visual impairment and severe headaches due to the tumor pressing against the optic nerve.  Inadequate treatment of pituitary gigantism is associated with cardiovascular problems and cancer.  It’s thought that Byrne likely suffered from shortness of breath because his lungs and heart would have struggled to supply oxygen and blood to his large body, joint pain when he walked, and crippling headaches.

In 2012, two academics mounted a campaign to fulfill Byrne’s dying wish and give the Irish Giant the burial he wanted.  Thomas Muinzer, a legal researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, and Len Doyal, professor of medical ethics at the University of London, argue there is no scientific benefit from continuing to display his remains

Dr Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “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.”


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