Monday, 2 January 2012

IMFW: Moral Dilemma

The first Interesting Medical Fact of the Week for 2012 - the first interesting fact for a whole new year - concerns something (or rather, someone) that I've written about before. Highly relevant to the pituitary adenoma theme of this blog, in fact.

In my last post, I mentioned Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, as he was known in his lifetime, a man who suffered from acromegaly in the 1780s. He was briefly a popular attraction in London before succumbing to alcoholism and dying very young at the age of 22. Although he is probably the most well known, as his skeleton is part of the collection in the Hunterian Museum, there were several well-known Irish giants, all of whom likely suffered from acromegaly, who exhibited themself across Europe at the time.

Byrne's skeleton was preserved against his will; the story goes that he was so keen to avoid his body falling into the clutches of John Hunter, a noted surgeon of the time, that his will requested his friends bury his body at sea in a lead coffin. Hunter managed to get his hands on the body, however, allegedly through bribery.

It's curious how many websites I've found when googling the name "Charles Byrne" which not only fail to mention acromegaly, but fail to mention that Byrne had an illness at all - as though growing to 7'7" is a kind of character flaw which could happen to anybody. His skeleton is still on display to the public at the Hunterian Museum, and around a year ago there was some publicity around some genetic research that has been taking place, looking at a genetic cause for  pituitary tumours which recur in families, which identified some modern-day acromegaly patients who may be related to Byrne.

More on that research another day.

Today, the news is that there have been calls for Charles Byrne's skeleton to be removed from display, and buried in accordance with his original wishes. It seems fairly unlikely that this will happen, he's a significant feature of the museum; but it's an interesting debate, and on the whole, I have to say that I would broadly be in favour of allowing him to be buried. It's interesting that the moral debate is still going on, more than two hundred years after his death.


  1. That is a tough one, I have been thinking about it lately.

    I say take "him" off display, but keep the remains stored somewhere safe in case there are more opportunities to learn more about the disease from his DNA or something. Maybe put a placard where the skeleton used to be, so that people know and understand what used to be on display, why it was removed, and what acromegaly is all about.

  2. It's a shame in a way, because his skeleton is undoubtedly used to call attention to a little-known disease, and it's such a visual illustration of acromegaly that it's trotted out quite frequently for photos whenever acromegaly is mentioned.

    But Mr Byrne so explicitly did not want his remains to be used in that way, and I don't know how you can square that with the needs of the museum or research - the fact is that if he had died ten years ago instead of two hundred, we would all (very rightly) be outraged at the use of his body for scientific purposes without his consent.