Friday, December 15, 2023

Charles Byrne, The “Irish Giant”

 Author: Justin Joiner 

There have been many strange or rare occurences in the world, but what about someone over 
seven feet? In this extremely rare case, one Irish man from Londonderry, United Kingdom, grew to be a staggering seven foot seven inches tall! According to Ian Halim in his article, “The Careless Display of Ill-Gotten Human Remains,” “advertising [Charles Byrne] in the newspapers as a "modern colossus" and "the greatest natural curiosity ever seen." 

Byrne sketch

Charles Byrne, real name Charles O’Brien, lived to only be 22 years old. His main health problems were “alcoholism and pituitary gigantism”, according to Laken Brooks of Forbes. He had a brain tumor that impacted his pituitary gland, which in turn, caused excessive growth from a condition called acromegaly. Since he was so tall, he made a living performing freak shows in the United Kingdom. He became a celebrity and entertainer because of his height, and lead to many researchers and doctors to pressure Byrne in donating his corpse for further analysis. Keep in mind Byrne lived during the late 18th, when many doctors and surgeons had little understanding of this excessive growth of a person. According to Allison Meier from JSTOR Daily, “an article from around the time of his death declared that “the whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irish giant and surrounded his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale.” Even though Byrne was pressured to donate, he wanted otherwise. As he was dying, he said he wanted to be buried at sea, as this would be a sure way to protect his remains. However, despite his efforts, it did not come true. 

His remains were Stolen by anatomist John Hunter, who bribed someone to replace Byrne’s remains in his coffin. According to Allison Meier from the JSTOR Daily, John apparently “boiled flesh from bone” and stored his skeleton for four years. Hunter eventually turned the bones over to the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum, where they have displayed Byrne’s remains for over 200 years. As time went on, many critics objected this because it disrespected the Irish Giant’s wishes to not have his remains displayed. In the end, the trustees of the museum decided that it was best to take down the remains but keep them in private for further research. At the end of the day, while Charles O’Brien may had been extraordinarily tall, he was still a human, and we must protect his wishes. 

Works Cited:

Aitken, Peter. “British museum will remove the bones of ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne.” New York Post, 18 Jan. 2023, Accessed 23 Oct. 2023. 

Brooks, Laken. “’Irish Giant’ Never Wanted His Body To Be A Specimen. Two Centuries Later, Museum Takes His Bones off Display.” Forbes, 26 Feb. 2023, Accessed 23 Oct. 2023. 

Halim, Ian. “The Careless Display of Ill-Gotten Human Remains.” UNDARK, 7 Apr. 2022, Accessed 26 Oct 2023. 

Meier, Allison. “Will an 18th-Centiry Giant Finally Get a Burial at Sea?” JSTOR Daily, 6 July 2018, Accessed 24 Oct 2023.

“Charles Byrne; James Burnett, Lord Monboddo; William Richardson; John Bell; Baillie Kyd by John Kay.” Wikipedia Image, 29 March 2009,;_James_Burnett,_Lord_Monboddo;_William_Richardson;_John_Bell;_Baillie_Kyd_by_John_Kay.jpg Accessed 26 Oct 2023

Links for further research:   
Kolata, Gina. “In a Giant’s Story, a New Chapter Writ by His DNA.” The New York Times, 5 Jan. 2011,,Northern%20Ireland%2C%20near%20where%20Mr. Accessed 23 Oct. 2023. This article talks about how an American surgeon by the name of Harvey Cushing removed the top of Charles Byrne’s skull, discovering he had a pituitary tumor. In addition, researchers “extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth” and found a rare and “mysterious” genetic mutation that caused excessive growth, with this mutation found in 2006 in Northern Ireland, near where Charles lived over 200 years ago.

Neeson, Conor. “The Irish Giant: Charles Byrne’s skeleton removed from display.” BBC News, 11 Jan. 2023, Accessed 26 Oct 2023. This source gives an update to Charles Byrne having his remains removed from the museum.    

Cleveland Clinic. “Gigantism.” Cleveland Clinic, 9 May 2022, Accessed 31 Oct 2023. This source by Cleveland Clinic gives more information about gigantism, the condition that Charles Byrne had. 

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