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The Story

The Story

This public outreach event centred on an historical encounter in Georgian London between the Irish giant Charles Byrne and the famous anatomist and surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). While the outcome of the encounter is known – Byrne’s skeleton ends up in Hunter’s possession – the exact details of how it got there remain in the dark.

Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), also known as Charles O'Brien or the “Irish Giant", was a human curiosity in London in the 1780s. His exact height is unknown: most accounts refer to him as from 8 ft 2 in (2.48 m) to 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m) tall, but skeletal evidence suggests that he was just over 7 ft 7 in (2.31 m). His family lived in a remote part of north-east Tyrone called Drummullan, not far from the shores of Lough Neagh. Local tales tell that Byrne was conceived on top of a haystack to explain the cause of his unusual height. Little is known of Byrne's family other than that his parents were ordinary people, and that they were not unusually tall.

At 21, Byrne left his home in Littlebridge, Ireland and traveled to London seeking his fortune. The city was a magnet for every manner of human oddity at the time.

Londoners were eager to pay to see ‘freaks’ and ‘wonders’ -- people with deformed and extra limbs, great or diminutive height, or with visually shocking medical conditions. He found work at Cox's Museum and moved into an elegant adjacent apartment, stocked with custom-built furniture. Charles soon became the toast of the town. A 6 May 1782 newspaper report noted: ‘However striking a curiosity may be, there is generally some difficulty in engaging the attention of the public; but even this was not the case with the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant.’

Among those whose attention was drawn to London’s latest wonder was the anatomist John Hunter. Driven – even possessed -- by a deep curiosity about unusual bodies and preoccupied by scientific studies of human malformation Hunter became obsessed with procuring Byrne’s body for his anatomical collection, whatever the cost. Under permanent surveillance from Hunter’s spies, Byrne, a stout Catholic, began to fear for his soul and afterlife. Indeed Byrne was so afraid that Hunter would dissect his corpse that on his deathbed requested to be buried at sea.

Fame and wealth soon overtook Byrne, and he gained a reputation for excessive drinking. According to newspaper reports he was drunk when his pocket was picked of his 700-pound life savings. Inconsolable, he drowned his sorrows and died in his apartment on Cockspurstreet, Charing Cross, in June 1783, at the age of only twenty-two.

Against his explicit wishes, Byrne's corpse was purchased by John Hunter for five hundred pounds (2011: £50,000). To achieve this end, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and filled the coffin with rocks at an overnight stop as Byrne’s body was taken from London to the sea where he had wished to be buried. For reasons unknown, Hunter who had put so much effort into procuring Byrne’s body, never displayed the sceleton during his lifetime. Today it remains on display at the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, where it continues to elicit controversy.

John Hunter (1728 – 1793) was a Scottish surgeon and one of the most distinguished eighteenth-century scientists. He was an early advocate of scientific observation and was unique in seeking to provide an experimental basis to surgical practice. Born at Long Calderwood, now part of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland, Hunter came to London in 1748 at the age of 20. He worked as an assistant at the anatomy school of his elder brother William who was already an established physician and obstetrician. Under William's direction, John learnt human anatomy and showed great aptitude in the dissection and preparation of specimens. He continued his studies under the then eminent surgeons William Cheselden (1688-1752) and Percivall Pott (1714-88) at Chelsea Hospital and St. Bartholomew's Hospital.

In 1760 Hunter left London to join the army. During his three years in Portugal and France, he developed not only new ideas on the treatment of common ailments, such as gunshot wounds and venereal disease, but he also spent much of his spare time collecting animal specimens. On his return to England in 1763, Hunter began to build up his private practice and anatomy museum. His scientific endeavour did not go unnoticed and, in 1767, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, followed by an appointment as Surgeon to St George's Hospital.

In 1783 he moved – together with his wife Anne Home whom he had married in 1771 - to a large house in Leicester Square. The large house soon became a leading centre for medical teaching. It was equipped with an own anatomy theatre and a large anatomical collection of nearly 14,000 specimens. Mainly thanks to the social skills of his wife – Hunter himself was known for his fervent temper – their home also became a ‘must’ for London’s fashionable eighteenth-century society. While Hunter kept Byrne’s skeleton, most certainly with his other specimens, he never exhibited it publicly during his own lifetime. The reason remains a mystery...


Images courtesy of Ronan McCloskey.