Saturday, March 25, 2017

John Hunter and Charles Byrne, A Clash Of Giants

Rebuilding the Royal College of Surgeons, London, 1834

Years ago I read a book called "The Giant, O' Brien" the book called out to me for numerous reasons, foremost of which being, the protagonist and myself shared a name-Charles O' Brien. The book was written by Hillary Mantel and is a great, if harrowing tale of the clash of Irish and English cultures in Britain.

Once Charles came of age, having heard of other giants who had made their fortune in London, he contrived to leave Ireland. O' Brien exhibited himself as a "freak" in England and changed his name from Charles Byrne to Charles O' Brien (claiming descent from warrior king, Brian Boru, founder of the O' Brien clan).  Charles Byrne was an "Irish Giant" born in rural county Derry in 1761. It seems there were numerous giants in his district, turns out they were suffering from a congenital disease called giantism.

John Hunter is known as "the founder of scientific surgery." He was a giant in his own field and was certainly one of the most famed and knowledgeable surgeons of his day. Hunter tried to itemise a whole world of anatomy, diseases and disorders, placing his discoveries in marked jars and vials. Though much of it was destroyed in WWII, the remains of Hunter's collection can still be seen today in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, London. He added greatly to our understanding of surgical practice and dissection and detailing of physical disorders. Hunter even gave his own body over to research once he died, and was dissected "for the cause" once he passed away in 1793. His zealousness for science, unfortunately, did not take into account the wishes of others, and when he caught wind of the Giant O' Brien he was determined to not led this specimen get away from him. 

O' Brien, at first, got on well in London. He exhibiting himself in a Cane shop next to "Cox's Museum" (along with a Polish dwarf, Count Borulwaski) and was the talk and toast of London. One day while drinking in his local pub "The Black Horse" he was pick pocketed, unfortunately for Charles, he carried with him that day, in bank notes, all the small fortune he had made. Thus began a spiral of drinking, melancholia and sickness which led to his death.

Knowing O' Brien was sick, the surgeon, Hunter, employed a man called Hewison to follow him around, waiting for the giant to pop his clogs. Another colleague of Hunter's who met O' Brien at this time thought him "an ill-bred beast, though young." They paid no heed to the wants of this "ill-bred" man. O' Brien knew he was being followed and at twenty two years of age paid for his funeral arrangements, his express wishes being, that when he died, he would be buried at sea in a lead coffin, at the mouth of the thames-far from the Royal College of Surgeons. When O' Brien died a few short months later, his will was initiated, the coffin bought, the last journey begun. One of the undertakers though, was paid a sum of 500 pounds to snatch the giant's body and Charles was brought into the arms of John Hunter who rapidly dissected him, eventually putting his bones on permanent display.

The Dissecting Room, Watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
A few days before a recent trip to London I saw and signed an online petition to have Charles Byrne's bones buried at sea, it brought back memories of the book by Hillary Mantel I had read, so, while in London I decided to visit the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College Of Surgeons. O' Brien's bones still have pride of place among the vials of dissected humanity and animal life. Just around the corner from O' Brien is an 18th century painting of Owen Farrell an Irish Dwarf.

Charles Byrne's Bones

Hillary Mantel portrays the clash of cultures of Ireland and England as "belief wrestling with knowledge and science wrestling with song" there is indeed some truth in this, but as well as that, the English over the centuries seem to want the Irish to be this superstitious, maybe innocuous other-a fantasy of "illborn brutes." We need to remember the Irish in the era of Charles Byrne were striving to be modern on their own terms, literally dying to break free of the grasp of the old world "monarchy" and into the arms of a new republic through the 1798 rebellion. What the English thought "a wayward child's dream," would be curtailed, we Irish would be moved into the modern world in the 19th century in a way deemed fit by Britain, not by methods of our own choosing. All of this superstition, republicanism and royalty's significance is perhaps diluted in recent times, but still, the Royal College of Surgeons hosts Charles Byrne's bones and a little painting of "An Irish Dwarf."

All of the images in this post are from a leaflet and postcards I got in the Hunterian Museum, © 2007 Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Photography was prohibited in the museum. 

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