John Hunter and the Irish giant

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John Hunter and the Irish giant
Neil H.   McAlister,* London, Ont.
There lived in England during the            together crying when he could not get        The Jerry Crunchers* of England
18th century a swashbuckling indivi¬         what he wanted; and could not be prospered, however, mainly because of
dual whose experience was great and          taught to read but with the greatest a peculiar legal situation. With charac¬
varied. In one lifetime he managed to       difficulty, and long after the age when teristic rationality the British laws had
teach himself anatomy and become a           other children read English fluently ruled that, since each man is the sole
famous teacher of the subject; perform      and have even made some progress in master of his body during life, when
numerous experiments in physiology;         Latin".1 Fortunately, he was eventually a man died nobody "owned" the dead
write profusely on topics ranging from      able to overcome his learning difficulty, corpse. That is, the owner had ceased
syphilology to "Opinions Concerning and later became the author of a con¬ to exist. It was therefore impossible to
the Anatomy of the Camel's Stomach"; siderable body of scientific literature. "steal" a corpse in the technical sense
and establish and maintain a museum of Interestingly enough, though, he never since it belonged to no one. Nor could
natural history and pathology, much completely outgrew his aversion to it be kidnapped since it was not a
of which is still lovingly preserved after books. When once an acquaintance living being. Therefore, as long as they
200 years. Moreover, despite his asked him what books his son should did not take clothing, shrouds, coffin
humble birth, lack of culture, vitupera- read in order to become a learned or anything else that belonged to the
tive tongue (he squabbled with every¬ man, Hunter reportedly seized the poor estate of the deceased, the resurrection-
body including his illustrious pupil fellow by the hand and dragged him ists were guilty of only a misdemeanour
Jenner), and well-known dealings with into the dissecting room where, point- rather than a serious crime such as
such rascals as "resurrectionists" (or ing at the corpses, Hunter exclaimed theft. For this reason body-snatching
body-snatchers) he was appointed Sur¬ "These are my books!" In fact, the remained in essence a contest between
geon Extraordinary to the King of story of how John Hunter acquired one the snatchers and the relatives of the
England^ and elected a Fellow of the of these "books" is perhaps one of the dear departed.
Royal Society. He is remembered today most exciting episodes in a career that            Some looked upon this contest with
by the museum that he founded, as an was far from dull.                               good humour, as witnessed by Tom
eponym in anatomy (Hunter's canal),            Traditionally, one of the most serious Hood's verse on "Mary's Ghost", who
and in annual memorial orations at the impediments to the progress of scien¬ appears to her lover:
Royal College of Surgeons.                  tific medicine was the limited avail¬        The body-snatchers they have come,
   That such an impressive record of ability of human bodies for proper                  And made a snatch at me;
divers accomplishments should have anatomical dissection. Even in countries              It's very hard them kind of men
been accumulated during one lifetime where           such punitive arts as drawing       Won't let a body be!
is truly remarkable and illustrates that and quartering of criminals flourished,
this colourful man, remembered on his the careful investigation of human                 The arm that used to take your arm
tombstone in Westminster Abbey as morphology was generally forbidden                     Is gone to Doctor Vyse;
                                                                                         And both my legs are gone to walk
"The Founder of Scientific Surgery", by legal and moral restraints. Although             The hospital at Guys.
was in fact more than a physician. He       the dissection of human bodies was not
was a significant contributor to the        illegal in England during the 18th           I vow'd that you should have my hand
evolution of scientific thought in gen¬ century, corpses for medical schools             But fate gives us denial;
eral, and more delightfully, he was an were in short supply. Occasionally the            You'll find it there, at Doctor Bell's,
                                                                                         In spirits and a phial.8
egregious human being and a down- body of a hanged criminal was removed
right character. In fact it is reported to Surgeon's Hall in London to be                Officially, however, the public
that he used to wrestle a bull in order publicly "anatomized" in order to serve looked upon this morbid business with
to keep fit, and that he once captured as an awful example and a further indignation and disgust. Tradition has
two escaped leopards single-handedly. deterrent to crime,2 such was the public it that once John and William Hunter
   As a lad John Hunter showed little horror of dissection. The shortage of refused to pay blackmail money to
promise of becoming an important or bodies led many anatomy schools to their suppliers, and that in retaliation
thoughtful man. His sister Dorothea, use wax models cleverly constructed the villains deposited a decomposing
when she was an old woman, recalled from rare and valuable preserved speci¬ corpse on the front steps of their
that "He was extremely indulged, and mens. There were, however, a few anatomy school during the night. In
so humoursome that he would often,          persistent scientists like John Hunter the morning two little girls first came
when a pretty big boy, sit for hours and his elder brother William who upon the grisly sight and ran screaming
                                            would be satisfied with nothing less
                                            than the real thing, and since when
?Third-year medical student, University of                                            ?Jerry
                                            there is a demand a supply usually ap¬ Charles Cruncher, "A Tale the Two
                                                                                                           one of       characters in
Western Ontario, London                                                                         Dickens'            of         Cities",
Reprint requests to: Mr. Neil H. McAlister, pears, the peculiar institution of body- thoughtand was was atocertain dignity in his
                                                                                               that there
465 Hale St., London, Ont. N5W 1G6          snatching  arose and flourished.                            pleased
                                                                                      be a "resurrectionist".
                                                                                                                  consider himself to

256 CMA JOURNAL/AUGUST 3, 1974/VOL. 111
home, whereupon the enraged neigh-          would keep his corpse from the clutches     there is absolutely no documentary
bours pelted the windows of the school      of the resurrectionists. Because he was     proof for the story, John Kobler has
with rocks. But scientists could not be     convinced that death was near he            written a perfectly believable account
intimidated, and the body-snatchers         ordered a lead coffin to be built and       of what easily might have happened:
 were a lot not easily discouraged.         left firm directions that it be watched
Almost every scheme to prevent the          day and night by stalwart Irish friends       When Byrne finally died, the watchers
                                                                                             stripped the corpse, so that if caught,
removal of bodies, no matter how in-        until it could be disposed of in the             they could not be charged with stealing
genious, was met by even more in-           mouth of the River Thames, far be-               property. They nailed shut the empty
genious counterplots by the "sack-'em-      yond the reach of the surgeons.                  casket and lugged the body down the
up boys". When the corpse was placed           No doubt Byrne's worries about the            stairs. John was waiting in his coach,
 in a sealed lead coffin, the robbers       ultimate fate of his earthly remains             and Howieson was perched on the
bribed the undertaker to leave the lid      contributed to the effects of gin and            driver's seat. Money and corpse
unlocked. When loaded guns with trip-       tuberculosis to hasten somewhat his              swiftly changed hands. Then clattering
wires were set about the graveyard to       untimely demise, and on the day when             through the stilled streets the coach
                                                                                             sped straight on under the lightening
discourage night raids, men dressed in      the lugubrious rites were to be carried          sky to Earl's Court, the tense little
women's clothes and posing as mourn-        out the following news item appeared             surgeon, and the huge naked cadaver
ing widows would kneel among the            in a London paper:                               jouncing together in the cramped
tombstones during the day and surrep-         Byrne's body was shipped on board a            blackness of the rear seat."1
titiously cut the wires.                      vessel in the river last night in order
    But perhaps the most magnificent                                                       It probably would not have been of
                                              to be conveyed to the Downs, where        much consolation to the Irish giant to
example of scheme and counterscheme           it is to be sunk in twenty fathom
occurred following the death of one           water: the body-snatchers, however,
                                                                                        have known that he would not really
Charles Byrne (also known as O'Brien),        are determined to pursue their valu-      be "anatomized" after all, but so great
who used to make a lucrative living as        able prey even in the profoundest         was Hunter's fear of being apprehended
a one-man freak show, billing himself         depth of the aquatic regions; and have    that the very night he obtained the
in the London newspapers thus:                therefore provided a pair of diving       corpse he boiled all the flesh off the
                                              bells, with which they flatter them-      bones, leaving only the skeleton which
   IRISH GIANT: To be seen this, and          selves they shall be able to weigh        he hid in his basement. The skeleton,
   every day this week, in his large and      hulk gigantic from its watery grave.6     incidentally, may still be seen today
   elegant room, at the cane-shop, next                                                 in the Hunterian Museum in London.
   door to Cox's Museum, Spring                It is noteworthy that carefully
   Gardens, Mr. Byrne, the surprising       planned and premeditated body-snatch-       The peculiar brown discolouration of
   Irish Giant, who is allowed to be the    ing received prior publicity in a news-     the bones is due to the sloppy tech-
   tallest man in the world .... Hours of   paper, where the story was written up       nique that Hunter employed in his
   admittance every day, Sundays ex-        much like a pregame prediction for a        haste. Had he been at liberty to dissect
   cepted, from 11 to 3 and from 5 to       sporting event! It appears that at least    the body of Charles Byrne, Hunter
   8, at half a crown each person.4         one of the diving bells was constructed     might have discovered the cause of the
   To be precise, Mr. Byrne stood eight     by an ambitious group of medical            giant's deformity. Inside the skull he
feet, two inches tall in his stocking       students who wished to make a little        would have seen a striking abnormality
feet. Unfortunately this Goliath was        surprise presentation to the anatomy        of the pituitary fossa which was not
by no means as robust as he was huge.       museum of their school.7                    observed until 1 9'09 when Harvey
He was a confirmed alcoholic and he            What precisely happened is not           Cushing obtained permission to open
also suffered from mental deficiency        known since no primary sources have         the skull. Cushing then made the diag-
and tuberculosis, which inexorably          ever been found. However, it is cer-        nosis of pituitary tumour.12
sapped his strength. Of course, the re-     tain that the ambitious medical students       In 1787 John Hunter commissioned
presentatives of several schools of ana-    did not recover the hulk of the Irish       the well-known artist Sir Joshua Rey-
tomy hovered greedily near like so          giant. For three years nobody knew          nolds to paint his portrait.13 In the
many vultures, and of all those who         what had actually become of the body        upper right-hand corner of the picture
paid half a crown to see the giant we       of Charles Byrne, although most people      one can see the bony legs of what
may be sure that none was more in-          were satisfied that it had been safely      must have been a very long skeleton.
terested than John Hunter who by this       deposited at the bottom of the sea.         John Hunter has a positively cherubic
time was building up a considerable         Then, when public interest in the           expression on his face, a look of com-
museum of specimens, both animal and        matter had entirely died away, the          plete candidness and innocence, almost
human. Through a disreputable fellow        skeleton of an extraordinarily tall per-    as if he were saying "Who, me?".
called Howieson, Hunter made a mone-        son appeared one day in a splendid
tary offer to the sodden colossus for       new glass case in John Hunter's mu-         References
his body (payment in advance, of            seum. Most authors point out that             1. DOBSON J: John Hunter. Edinburgh, Williams
                                                                                             & Wilkins, 1969, p 12
course!) at which proposal poor Byrne       Hunter never made any written men-          2.   GLOYNE SR: John Hunter. Baltimore, Wil-
recoiled in horror. But Hunter would        tion of either giants or gigantism.8 How-        liams & Wilkins, 1950, p 17
                                                                                        3.   Ibid, p 19
not be thwarted in his purpose. At his      ever, he once did confide in a letter       4.   KOBLER J: The Reluctant Surgeon: A Bi-
                                            to his close friend, Sir Joseph Banks,           ography of John Hunter. New York, Double-
instigation Howieson went to stare at                                                        day, 1960, p 239
the giant every day with a baleful          "I lately got a tall man, but at the          5. Ibid, p 240
                                                                                          6. DOBSON J: Op cit, p 263
expression on his face that clearly         time could make no particular observa-        7. KOBLER J: Op cit, p 242
                                                                                          8. DOBSON J: Op cit, p 264
lamented "Sooner or later. . .".5 The       tions. I hope next summer to be able         9. KOBLER J: Op cit. p 244
unfortunate giant was considerably un-      to show him."'                              10. GRAY E: Portrait of a Surgeon: A Bio-
                                                                                             graphy of John Hunter. London, Hale, 1952,
nerved by this merciless persecution           Almost certainly John Hunter had              p 163
and was at length driven to abandon         somehow been able to bribe the Irish        11l. KOBLER J: Op cit, p 242
                                                                                        12. Idem, p 331
his career as a walking exhibition. He      body-watchers. What they had buried         13. GLOYNE SR: Op cit, title page qv
hit the bottle harder than ever and,        at sea was probably an empty coffin.        General reference
determined that he should not be            Tradition has it that John Hunter paid       1. HUNTER J: The Complete Works of John
"anatomized" when dead, Byrne or-           them £ 500, a considerable sum in               Hunter, F.R.S. (3 vols), edited by PALMER JF,
                                            those days, to deliver the body.'° While        Philadelphia; Haswell, Barrington and Has-
dered arrangements to be made that                                                           well; 1841

                                                                            CMA JOURNAL/AUGUST 3, 1974/VOL. 111 257

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