Welcome to part 2 of a special feature by best-selling author Tessa Harris. After studying History at Oxford University, Tessa became a journalist and later an editor. Her interest in history has provided her novels with a unique perspective, and in the following feature she delivers the true story of the man as the center of her latest work, The Dead shall not Rest (sequel to The Anatomist’s Apprentice).
Part 1 of this series may be viewed here.
No Peace for the Dead: a Modern Dilemma (Part 2)
At the centre of a new novel, The Dead Shall Not Rest, is the true story of a man whose fate has implications for us all, argues its author Tessa Harris
A medical breakthrough
Ironically, had Hunter been able to dissect Byrne’s body, he may well have discovered the cause of his gigantism. In 1909 an examination of his skull revealed his condition was caused by a tumor in the pituitary, the endocrine gland that secretes many essential hormones, including ones for growth. Byrne’s acromegaly was typically characterized by excessive growth of the jaw, hands and feet.
Fast forward to 2008 and a professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Barts and the London NHS Trust, was studying in an inherited form of pituitary tumor called familial isolated pituitary adenoma (Fipa).Márta Korbonits already knew of an Irish family where several of its members were affected. They came from the same part of Ireland as Byrne, in County Tyrone. A genetic link was an obvious possibility, but to test her theory she needed to work on the giant’s DNA.
The Hunterian Museum gave permission for her to send two of Byrne’s teeth off to a laboratory in Germany that had previously extracted DNA from sabre-toothed tigers.
Meanwhile a TV documentary-maker was planning a short film about Ireland’s giants and had teamed up with an Irishman named Brendan Holland, who, like Byrne came from Tyrone. Mr Holland suffered from a pituitary tumor. It had been removed when he was a teenager, but he still measured 6ft 9in tall.
Tests revealed Mr Holland had the same AIP gene mutation as Charles Byrne. According to Korbonits’s research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, both Byrne and today’s patients inherited their genetic variant from the same common ancestor. The mutation is around 1,500 years old, so those ancient Irish legends have truth at their heart.
Today there could be between 200 and to 300 living people carrying this same mutant gene and thanks to Charles Byrne’s bones, it is now possible to trace carriers and treat them before they grow to be a giant. So, his work here is done. DNA samples have been taken, the bones fully examined. They have served a very valuable purpose, but, it can be argued, can be of no possible further practical medical use. So why not take the skeleton off public display and give Charles Byrne the decent burial he so craved?
A decent burial
It is this question that has sparked a heated debate within the medical ethics community. The director of the Hunterian, Dr Sam Alberti, argues that the breakthrough at Barts was:“A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA).” He goes on: “This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum. At the present time, the Museum’s Trustees therefore consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.”
In December 2011, however, an article appeared in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) refuting claims that it was still necessary to keep Charles Byrne’s remains at the museum and calling for him to be buried instead at sea. It was accompanied by a 15-minute film.
In the article, Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary University in London and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at Queen’s University Belfast, argued that Byrne’s dying wish should be granted. They wrote: “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.”
They maintained that now that Byrne’s DNA has been analyzed for use in further research if necessary, his skeleton could be replaced by a replica for display purposes. Professor Doyal told me:“Technologies exist – for example, photogrammetry – which make it possible to record in 3D the anatomical detail of Byrne’s skeleton. Along with minute scrapings of his already highly boiled and therefore damaged bones, these together would provide any further potentially useful scientific information before the skeleton was buried.”
In the article he and Muinzer concluded that: “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.” The article received widespread publicity and the reaction was generally in support of the arguments aired in the BMJ that Byrne remains should, at the very least, be taken from public view.
There are other relatively recent cases where 21st century sensibilities have triumphed. Take, for example, the story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus. Originally from the area now known as the Eastern Cape in South Africa, her pronounced buttocks and genitals made her a curiosity to Europeans. She was paraded as a freak first in London, then in Paris after she was bought by a Frenchman. She quickly fell into alcoholism and prostitution and died in 1815. Her body was then dissected and parts were preserved and put on display along with her skeleton. They were exhibited in Paris up until the mid-1970s.
With the end of apartheid, however, Baartman became a symbol of European colonial attitudes towards Africa and in her native South Africa a campaign for the return of her remains was begun. After many legal wrangles, France finally returned them in 2002 and they were buried in her homeland.
Yet despite such precedents and some pressure to remove Byrne’s skeleton from view, the Royal College of Surgeons remains unmoved. In an email to me, Dr Alberti, reiterated that the college believed that “the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea (as you know better than most, no will or testament survives – there is no direct evidence of his burial wishes).
In my view, Professor Doyal sums up the argument well when he says: “Charles Byrne was a man worthy of respect. Given the medical benefits that his skeleton has already conferred and the feasibility of continued acromegaly research without it, we continue to believe that his burial wishes should be respected. We hope that in the future the Hunterian Museum and Royal College of Surgeons will reconsider their unfortunate decision. “
Personally, I believe that Charles Byrne’s remains should, at the very least, be taken off public display. Even if not all possible information has been extracted from the skeleton, I can see no reason why it should remain on show. Knowing his abhorrence of dissection and his certain desire to avoid it at all costs, it seems to me that the Hunterian Museum is being rather disingenuous in their refusal. I do not, however, agree with Doyle and Muinzer that his remains should be buried at sea. It is clear to me that the sole reason Byrne made such a request was because it was the only way he believed he was guaranteed to escape Hunter’s clutches. Burial at sea was a last desperate attempt to avoid the knife. In my view a normal burial, preferably near his home town of Littlebridge in Ireland, would be the most appropriate.
So, the debate about the merits of displaying Byrne’s remains rumbles on. In the meantime his much diminished skeleton hangs in a glass case, (it now measures 7ft 7in.) continuing to amaze thousands of visitors a year. And, for the foreseeable future at least, it seems that Charles Byrne’s only wish, that he be left to rest in peace, will continue to be ignored.
A documentary originally aired by the BBC about Charles Byrne may be viewed here.
Thank you, Tessa, for a wonderful article and another gripping mystery in the Silkstone series!
More about the novel: Published by Kensington Books, the sequel shows us that it isn’t just the living who are prey to London’s criminals and cutpurses. Corpses, too, are fair game – dug up from fresh graves and sold to men of science for dissection. Dr. Thomas Silkstone’s unscrupulous rival, Dr. John Hunter, has learned of the imminent death of eight-foot-tall Charles Byrne, known as the “Irish Giant,” and is obsessed with obtaining the body for his research. When Dr. Hunter is implicated in the horrific murder of a young castrato, Thomas must determine how far the increasingly erratic surgeon will go in the name of knowledge. For as Thomas knows, the blackest hearts sometimes go undetected until it’s too late…