The Reluctant Giant

The Reluctant Giant

Charlie Byrne, a twenty—one—year—old Irishman, stood eight feet, two inches tall in his stocking feet. Byrne was accustomed to people staring at and following him; in fact he made his living by charging a fee for a look at his enormous form. He billed himself in the sideshows of London as "The Irish Giant, a Living Colossus." He was nevertheless a little apprehensive when he noticed a particular gentleman lurking behind him.

Why should this stalker have bothered him? Only because Byrne recognized the man as a professional body snatcher, currently in the employ of one John Hunter, an eminent Scottish surgeon and anatomist. In truth Dr. Hunter did want Byrne's bones and had sent his ghoul around to make the giant an offer; cash now for his body later. Horrified at the idea, the giant quickly hired an undertaker to make him a lead coffin and arranged to be buried at sea upon his death. In this manner the bones of Charlie Byrne would not be desecrated.

The giant knew that careful planning was prudent if he was to avoid becoming a permanent specimen, because death was not far off. Charlie suffered from tuberculosis, an affliction compounded by acute alcoholism. In 1783, after a severe drinking binge, the giant developed pneumonia and passed on to his reward. He died presumably tranquil in the knowledge that he had kept Dr. Hunter at bay.

Things did not, however, work out in accordance with his plans — not in any way. While Byrne lay dying, Dr. Hunter was not far off, busily bribing the undertaker's

employees. So after Charlie's death the anatomist obtained his body and proceeded to extract the bones. Unfortunately the doctor seemed to regard his remains more as a curiosity than as a course of anatomical enlightenment. It wasn't long afterward that the bones of the former giant were transported to London's Royal College of Surgeons Museum, where they are on display to this day.

In 1909 the American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing visited the museum and was intrigued by the bones. His examinations of the remains of the reluctant giant revealed substantial information. Cushing opened Byrne's skull and found evidence that during his life there had been a tumor on his pituitary, a tiny gland located at the base of the brain. Scientists now know that the pituitary gland secretes a human growth hormone. If this hormone is released in overabundance, giantism will result, and this was the cause of Charlie Byrne's tremendous size.

Dr. Cushing's observation helped link the pituitary gland to human growth. Thus launched the modern science of endocrinology.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth