The Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields holds collections of human and non-human anatomical things as varied from a pig’s penis to the oesophagus of a whale, the museum also owns the skeleton of a famous giant. The skeleton once on display stood seven foot seven inches tall in its display case and towered over the rest of the museum’s collection. This is, or was, Charles Byrne, a genetic giant who suffered from the growth disorder now known as acromegaly.
The Hunterian Museum, currently undergoing renovation, and not set to reopen until 2022 has announced that “plans for all the displays in the new museum will be issued in due course”.
Which begs the question as to the museum’s giant who wasn’t meant to be there at all. Byrne didn’t want to spend an eternity on public display. From the rural Ireland of his upbringing to the streets of London, he had spent his whole life exhibiting himself. People paid to visit him in his London lodgings and he performed tricks in public, like using street lamps to light his pipe. After years of making a living from his remarkable height, he was desperate that his bones did not endure the same indignity. Byrne’s Will explicitly stated that he wished to be buried at sea in a heavy lead coffin.
The Hunterian has made no secret of the fact that they’d come by the skeleton illegally and against the man’s last wishes. The museum’s founder, the surgeon John Hunter, had followed Byrne closely when he moved to London. As the giant’s health deteriorated and he began to drink, Hunter moved in like a vulture. When Byrne contracted tuberculosis and died aged just twenty-two, it was Hunter’s men who waylaid the giant’s coffin on its way from London to Margate. The undertaker was bribed and the body returned to the surgeon.
Instead of the anonymity of the North Sea, the giant ended up immersed in Hunter’s grim cauldron, where the flesh was literally boiled off his bones. Once reduced, the skeleton was pinned together and put on display, black numerals stamped on it like a prisoner’s identification printed on bone. Byrne has endured the ignominy of his glass cabinet for over two hundred years.
Any scientific value the body once possessed has long since been quarried, DNA from the teeth analysed, and countless photographs and X-rays were then taken to document every inch of the skeleton. Even if the museum one day honours Byrne’s final wishes, you could say the damage has already been done.
Featured image: Choppy cold grey sea by coolwallpapers (CC BY-SA)