Fate Of Irish Giant's Bones Rekindles Debate Over Rights After Death : Shots - Health News Charles Byrne was about 7 feet 7 inches tall, an 18th century marvel whose height came from a pituitary tumor. He asked for privacy in death, but his skeleton is still on display in a London museum.
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The Saga Of The Irish Giant's Bones Dismays Medical Ethicists

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The Saga Of The Irish Giant's Bones Dismays Medical Ethicists

The Saga Of The Irish Giant's Bones Dismays Medical Ethicists

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What is our obligation to honor the wishes of the dead? Well, that question still swirls around the remains of an 18th-century Irishman who was a giant - literally. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has his story.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Let's go back to 1761 in Ireland. A boy named Charles Byrne was born into a poor family. He grew and grew and grew.

THOMAS MUINZER: Based on the skeleton, it seems he was around 7'7".

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Thomas Muinzer, a law expert from the University of Stirling in Scotland. He's been fascinated by this story for years ever since he read about it in a footnote. Long ago, Byrne was famous, known as the Irish Giant, and made a living showing off his height. But the tumor in his pituitary gland that made him tall also made him sick. At the age of 22, he was on his deathbed, surrounded by friends, and he was scared but not just of dying.

MUINZER: But he had a fear that if he was buried in the ground his body could be snatched by what were then called resurrectionists.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The resurrectionists - that was the name given to shady grave robbers. They sold corpses to medical schools or scientists who needed human bodies to dissect. Byrne knew his unusual body would be a real prize, so he made this final request.

MUINZER: Charles directs his pals to weigh him down in a kind of lead coffin and bury him at sea.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Only at the bottom of the English Channel would his body be safe from people like John Hunter, an eminent surgeon who was famous for his collection of anatomical specimens.

MUINZER: Charles was well aware that the surgical establishment had their eyes on him if you like. And in all likelihood, he was concerned about Hunter specifically.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hunter was in fact hunting the Irish Giant. An unscrupulous undertaker secretly opened the coffin and switched the dead body for dead weight.

MUINZER: The burial goes ahead. Meanwhile, Charles' body isn't in there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The huge corpse got spirited away to Hunter's house. The surgeon kept all this under wraps for a few years, but the story eventually came out, as did Byrne's skeleton. It became one of the highlights of Hunter's collection. And incredibly, over two centuries later, you can go see it for free in London because it's on display at a museum called the Hunterian.

MUINZER: In the sort of center of the ground floor, you have this enormous skeleton in a illuminated display case, and that's Charles Byrne.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Muinzer finds this dismaying. He's written articles calling for Byrne to get his burial at sea. He's not the only one who's been drawn in by Byrne's story. The giant showed up as a character in more than one novel, and there's even a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Built my skeleton from the bones and threw the flesh away. Now I'm part of this collection, forever on display. Please...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Muinzer says this isn't ancient history. It's about our values today.

MUINZER: Do we want to live in a world where people die, they're gone, who cares about what they wanted in life in terms of the remains or in terms of their burial? Or do we want to live in a world where we respect people's wishes after they've passed away?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even now, the wishes of the dead and their families aren't always followed. Jeffrey Kahn is a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.

JEFFREY KAHN: There have been numerous cases in the not so distant past of bodies that were supposed to go to cemeteries ending up in medical school dissection classes. That happened in New York state not so long ago.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says in this case, Byrne was very clear about what he wanted.

KAHN: It wasn't to display him in a museum. And I wonder what the value of continuing to display his skeleton actually is. Is there more to be learned?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The museum is run by the Royal College of Surgeons. Its spokesperson would only email me a statement. It said, quote, "educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains." And it said they will stay on display. The museum said it's gotten support for the display from some people who are known to share a distant common ancestor with Byrne. The museum says it finds their views, quote, "significant." One person who's been genetically linked to burn is an Irishman named Brendan Holland. He grew to a height of six feet 10 inches before being diagnosed and treated. He says, personally, he wouldn't care if his dead body ended up in a glass case.

BRENDAN HOLLAND: I am one of those people who take the views of when you're dead, you're dead.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's been face to face with Byrne's skeleton and isn't sure what should be done with it.

HOLLAND: I'm in two minds on this, I have to say. You know, I can see both sides of the argument.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Museums are full of human remains that don't come with signed consent forms. Who knows how, say, Egyptian mummies would feel about being gawked at by tourists? But Muinzer, the legal expert, says that Byrne's case is unique.

MUINZER: He is now, after having been stolen on the way to his funeral, on display permanently as a sort of freak exhibit in the memorial museum to the person who screwed him over effectively.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the Hunterian Museum is scheduled to close this spring for an extensive renovation. It will reopen again in a few years. Muinzer's hope is that the museum's trustees will take this as an opportunity to reconsider the fate of the Irish Giant. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GYPSY JAZZ CARAVAN SONG, "GIANT STEPS")

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