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Theodore Dalrymple: Furore over giant ignores skeletons in the cupboard

Professor Marta Korbonits with the skeleton of the 'Irish Giant' Charles Byrne, and Brendan Holland, who has the same gene that gives rise to gigantism.

As every schoolboy knows -- or at any rate used to think he knew -- the Victorians were a prudish lot. They covered their piano legs with leggings to act as a prophylactic against lewd thoughts; women wore clothes of many layers for the same reason.

There is, however, a law of the conservation of prudery, in Britain anyway. If we're not prudish about one thing, we're prudish about another. The Victorians did not conceal their prurience about what they did not hesitate to call freaks; they exhibited them in circuses and fairs (from which they derived an income, sometimes a large income); after their death, they pickled them, or parts of them, in bottles, or boiled them down for their skeletons.

Pathology museums everywhere in the country have their share of the anomalies that nature throws up. The Georgians and Victorians would probably have regarded our squeamishness with regard to these matters as morbid and symptomatic of our refusal to face an aspect of reality, a hypocritical desire to avert our eyes from the unpleasant.

The controversy now being stirred up about the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, now in the Hunterian Museum of London's Royal College of Surgeons, would have struck them as absurd and a sign of overrefinement. Byrne was more than 8ft tall, all the more remarkable when 5ft 6in was a good height for a man. It was the great neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing who first suggested that he suffered from pituitary gigantism.

Byrne, driven to drink by his fame (or perhaps inclined to it anyway), feared to be exhibited after his death, and said that he wanted to be buried at sea in a lead coffin.

But his corpse was much sought after by the medical profession, and one observer wrote: "The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surrounded his house just as harpoonists would an enormous whale." Hunter's claim was successful: he paid £500 for Byrne's body, an enormous sum at the time.

Thomas Muinzer, a legal academic in Belfast (Byrne was from Northern Ireland), says it is now time to honour Byrne's last wishes and make retrospective amends for the continued unseemly display of his skeleton, which satisfies morbid curiosity without any intellectual or scientific purpose.

There is little doubt that Byrne's wishes would be respected today. But is this a decisive argument? Does not the passage of time make a difference to the fidelity with which a man's dying wishes are to be respected?

If the answer is no, it is not only Byrne's skeleton that must be removed from public view, but every body or relic of those who may be presumed not to have wished for public exposure after death. The mummies in the British Museum (to say nothing of those in the Egyptian Museum) would have to be removed from the sight of the idly curious. It is true that the wishes of the mummified are not as precisely known as those of Charles Byrne, but it may be presumed that they did not desire the fate that befell them and it is likely that they would have been appalled had they known it.

Irish Independent