Thursday, December 22, 2011

Irish Giant could finally be buried at sea

The remains of an Irish 'Giant', long held in a London museum should be buried at sea to fulfill the man's last wishes, according to a professor of medical ethics at University of London and a lawyer from Queen's University Belfast.

We've covered the tragic story of Charles Byrne already. The 7ft 7in man from Northern Ireland ended up in London in the 1780's where he worked as a 'freak' and ended up destitute and an alcoholic before dying, aged just 22 in 1783.

Despite his express wishes that he be buried at sea to avoid becoming a morbid curiosity in death, his skeleton ended up in the hands of the surgeon John Hunter who boiled the body in acid to remove the flesh from the bones. As one contemporary report put it: "The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surrounded his house just as harpooners would an enormous whale."

Writing in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal, Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer argue that while the remains had a valid role to play in medical research, it is now time to remove the skeleton from display and bury it at sea.

The bones did play an important role in medical research. As the authors note: "In 1909 the American surgeon Harvey Cushing removed the top of Byrne’s skull and observed an enlarged pituitary fossa, confirming a relation between the disease [acromegaly or'gigantism'] and adenoma [a benign tumour]".

The authors argue that there is no obvious reason why Byrne would have lacked the capacity or competence to make a decision about the disposal of his body.

"The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified. Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death."

The authors discuss the paper in this video from the BMJ >>

The skeleton is now in the possession of and on display in the Royal College of Surgeons in London and the authors of the BMJ article argue that its public display is no longer justifiable. "Past research on Byrne did not require the display of his skeleton; merely medical access to it. Moreover, now that Byrne’s DNA has been extracted, it can be used in further research."

"As a sign of respect for Byrne’s original desires, his skeleton should be buried at sea as part of a ceremony commemorating his life. We recommend that the Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons organise this burial, along with a conference on related legal and ethical issues. At the very least, we suggest that more complete information is provided about the background of the acquisition and display of Byrne’s skeleton so that visitors can make a more informed judgment about the moral implications and appropriateness of its continued display."


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