Charles Byrne’s Body: A sorry science story

In mid 18th century an oddity was born in Ireland who if he lived 200 years later would have been Irish basketball’s great hope. In a dwarfish country stunted by lack of access to nutritious foods, Charles Byrne stood out. He was believed to be over eight feet tall though skeletal evidence put him at 2.31m, which at seven foot seven was still head, shoulders and much of the upper torso over most contemporaries. Byrne did not have access to a better diet than others around him. It was a gene mutation caused by a pituitary tumour that caused the growth. He died in 1783 aged just 22 though it wasn’t the tumour that killed him.

Byrne lived 21 of those 22 years in Tyrone, born of unexceptionable stock. Local gossips said the reason for his height was his parents’ love affair on top of a haystack and this lofty situation affected conception. Although acknowledged as a freak of nature, he wasn’t treated as one. As Australian historian Patrick O’Farrell noted, the Irish look at everyone on their merits. Writing about the Irish in Australia, O’Farrell noted they never paternalised their relationship with Aborigines because they never looked down on them as the WASPs did.
Byrne left Tyrone unashamed of his freakdom but wanting to exploit it. His parents knew he could better capitalise on his status elsewhere. His exceptional size attracted a nearby carpetbagger named Joe Vance from Coagh. Vance wanted to astound Europe with Byrne. The pair arrived in London in 1782, and Byrne transfixed the capital as “the Irish Giant”. He took a room next door to the fabled Cox’s Museum at Charing Cross. James Cox was a jeweller and toy maker who exported luxury European items to the Far East. When China banned his goods, he turned his unsaleable cargo of exotic clocks, watches and earrings into a museum of “automata” which opened in 1772. This museum became known for its extravagant assemblage and became “a seductive metaphor and a compelling stage for debating the troublesome issues of political and economic stability.”While Cox had sold up by the time Byrne moved to London, his museum retained an aura Vance could capitalise on. Byrne entertained audiences next door for seven hours a day, six days a week. His gracious airs made him the talk of the town. Within weeks Byrne was entertaining the Royal Family, members of the nobility and his baffling condition was examined by the Royal Society. When Count Joseph Boruwlawski known as the “Polish Dwarf” met Byrne in London, their surprise was equal. As Boruwlawski remembered, Byrne was a moment speechless, “viewing me with looks of astonishment; then stooping very low to present me his hand, which easily have contained a dozen like mine, he made a very polite compliment. Had a painter been present, the contrast of our figures might have suggested to him the idea of an interesting picture; for having come very near him, the better to show the difference, it appeared that his knee was nearly upon level with the top of my head.”

Byrne moved to Piccadilly where he continued to work six days a week. Admittance for ladies and gentlemen was 2s. 6d, children and “servants in livery” paid a shilling. Vance and Byrne grew wealthy but by 1783 the public were tiring of the Irish Giant. His success drew other tall men to London including the Gigantic Twin Knipe brothers born only five miles away from Byrne in Tyrone. Another Irishman was advertised as a giant “upwards of Four Inches taller than the noted Burn.” Byrne’s problems were compounded by his love of gin and whiskey. He was frequently drunk on stage and many performances had to be cancelled. Vance was forced to drop the price to a shilling but Byrne’s dissolution continued.

On 23 April 1783 Byrne fell asleep in a “lunar ramble” at the Black Horse public house and someone stole £700 from his pockets – his entire savings. Devastated, he redoubled his drinking and contracted tuberculosis. He deteriorated badly in May and died on 1 June 1783. His biggest fear was not death but the surgeons’ thirst for his body. His Catholic upbringing gave him a horror of the coroner’s knife which he believed could deny his soul a place in heaven on Judgement Day.

One man had no time for Byrne’s scruples. That was John Hunter, Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III. Hunter was a pivotal influence on modern surgery and dissected thousands of cadavers he got from “resurrection men” – professional grave robbers. When Hunter saw Byrne he coveted his body for science. Byrne was aware of Hunter’s ambition and strove to thwart it in his dying days. His instructions were his coffin should be guarded by Irish friends who would arrange to bury him at sea. Byrne scraped the last of his savings to the undertaker whom he entrusted to carry out the plan.

Hunter was determined not to lose out. He employed a man named Howison to watch Byrne’s whereabouts at all times from a next door apartment. When Byrne died, a newspaper reported he wanted his bones “far out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity”. One reportedly offered a ransom of 800 guineas to the undertakers. The offer was turned down but promoters got one last meal ticket out of Byrne as they displayed his enormous coffin for one shilling entry. On 6 June, the body was taken aboard a ship to Margate where it would be sunk in “20 fathoms of water” in the English Channel. Another boat was chartered and the coffin was tipped into the sea.

But Byrne’s body was no longer in it. The Annual Register for 1873 said the sea burial report was “merely a tub thrown out to the whale.” When Byrne died, next door Howison immediately told his paymaster. Hunter bribed the undertaker for £500 who switched the body with paving stones while the funeral party was drunk. Hunter took the corpse to his surgery but became terrified of the revenge of Byrne’s friends if they found out. He chopped up the body and boiled the pieces so only the bones were left. In his haste, the skeleton was discoloured brown. Hunter’s failure to conduct an autopsy ruined any hope of diagnosing Byrne’s condition. He hid the huge skeleton for four years until Byrne’s name was forgotten.

He displayed it in his anatomical collection and it was later displayed at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. In 1909 American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing got permission to open Byrne’s skull and diagnosed the pituitary tumour. Byrne’s discoloured skeleton remains today in the Hunterian where many visitors including the current monarch have been fascinated by its extraordinary size.

The fight continues between his legacy and Byrne’s modern day relatives anxious to carry out the dying wish. One of those relatives, Brendan Holland said Byrne’s body has been on display for 200 years and it was time for him to receive a proper burial. “He was quite a celebrity and he made a lot of money out of exhibiting himself,” Holland said. “It’s the person within that’s important. It’s very unfortunate that he didn’t live long enough to understand that.” His wishes are not shared by the Hunterian’s director Sam Alberti. Alberti was reluctant to hand over his star attraction saying “researchers were excited about the potential for future research.”

The British Medical Journal agrees with the family Byrne has done his time and should be buried at sea. Fellow Northern Irishman and researcher at the school of law at Queen’s University Belfast, Thomas Muinzer wrote in the Journal it was time to respect his memory and reputation. “What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” Muinzer wrote. Mr Muinzer added there was nothing of use that could be deduced scientifically from Byrne’s bones. “We have now a full record of Byrne’s DNA and we also have numerous examinations of the skeleton,” he wrote. “With burial law, when you or I stipulate burial wishes in life, we rely on those wishes to be respected. Those wishes don’t have legal force, they have moral force.”

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