Global Health Summer School visit to the Hunterian Museum: report by Pennie Quinton

By Pennie Quinton, PhD candidate in Global Health & Social Medicine.

The Department of Global Health and Social Medicine once again hosted a successful Global Health Summer School, which ran for three weeks from the end of June to mid-July. The Summer School team led by Professors Nik Rose and Anthea Tinker were pleased to welcome thirty students from across the world. Many of the students were studying pharmacy at the University of Singapore and were looking to increase their knowledge of the sociology of medicine, while other students hailed from the USA, Peru, Spain, China and Japan. In previous years the Summer School was solely convened by Sridhar Venkatapuram but this year he handed the reins over to a summer school team, who invited staff and students to deliver lectures from the broad range of subjects on the sociology of health offered by the department. The Global Health Summer School was supported and structured by a dedicated team of doctoral students: Alex Bowman, Guntars Ermansons, Pennie Quinton, Stephen Roberts, and Abin Thomas and proved to be a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable experience in developing a study programme that utilised the varied skills and expertise within a talented staff and student partnership.

Image by Paul Dean under Creative Commons Licence

Image by Paul Dean under Creative Commons Licence.

The summer school also offered an excursion to the Huntarian Museum of surgery on Lincolns Inns Field and to the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. At the Huntarian the students were taken on a guided tour of the vast collection of medical specimens.

The tour guide who introduced himself as a retired paediatric surgeon told the students the story of how the skeleton of Charles Byrne also known as the ‘Irish Giant’ came to be housed in the collection.

At 7 feet 7 inches tall, Byrne left his home in Ireland when he was 19 and travelled to London to make his fortune as a freak; where he enjoyed wealth and fame. Suffering from tuberculosis and an alleged love of gin, he died a few years later. In advance of his death and knowing that John Hunter was desperate to have his body for the collection, Byrne arranged to be buried at sea in an iron coffin. Hunter’s men way laid the cart bearing Byne’s body to the harbour and large sums of money were exchanged. His body was then returned to Hunter’s workshop, where Mr. Byrne’s corpse was boiled in acid to remove the flesh and his skeleton was then exhibited. At the end of his narrative, the tour guide asked the students whether they thought the skeleton of John Byrne had now been in the Museum for long enough and should now have his wish of being buried at sea.

Many of the students felt that yes, Byrne should finally have his last wishes granted.

With a slight twinkle in his eye the tour guide then asked, “but what if I told you that when researchers carried out DNA analysis on Byrne’s teeth their findings revealed he had a rare genetic condition, discovered only in 2006, that can cause tumours in the pituitary gland leading to excessive growth. The research team had previously found the mutation in four families from Northern Ireland, near where Mr. Byrne was born. Following a hunch, they decided to test whether Mr. Byrne had had the mutation, too, and whether the mutation indicated that the four families were related to him. Their hunch was right. The group, led by Dr. Marta Korbonits, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, went on to publish their findings in The New England Journal of Medicine. What do you say now, bury him at sea?”

The students then appeared significantly divided on the ethical issue of denying a dead man his last wishes with fewer hands voting in favour of granting Byrne his final wish of being buried at sea. The story of Byrne the Irish Giant and the ethical question of the disposal of his remains was just one of the many discussions on bioethics discussed over the three week summer school and the school of Global Health & Social Medicine looks forward to carrying on such discussions with a new cohort of international students in summer 2017.

For more on Charles Byrne, see In a Gian’ts Story, a New Chapter Writ by His DNA

Follow Pennie @penrosequinton


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