The Case of the Big Man With a Little Lesion

Albert Lowenfels, MD


June 27, 2011

About the Patient

Charles Byrne (1761-1783), the "Irish Giant," was born in Littlebridge, Northern Ireland. When Byrne became a young adult, an entrepreneur, Joe Vance, convinced Byrne that he should seek his fortune in London; Vance assured the tall man that throngs of people there would be willing to pay to see such a large person.[1] In 1782, the pair travelled to London, where a local newspaper carried an advertisement:

"IRISH GIANT" To be seen this and every day ... Mr. Byrne ...
who is allowed to be the tallest man in the world ... his height is
eight feet two inches ... He will not be long in London as he
proposes shortly to visit the Continent."

The charge for the privilege of seeing and talking with the giant was 2 shillings sixpence, a considerable sum in the 18th century. The audience was impressed not only by Byrne's tremendous size but also his quiet, gentle demeanor.

Unfortunately, Byrne died at the age 22 of years. Alcohol undoubtedly contributed to his death; he began to drink heavily, especially after being robbed of a large sum of money. Before his death, Byrne knew that many surgeons were interesting in obtaining his body; he pleaded with his friends to bury him in a secure location, preferably at sea, to ensure that his body could not be retrieved. However, his dying request was not to be fulfilled.

An autopsy was performed soon after his death. On 2 subsequent occasions his remains were reexamined, eventually revealing the correct diagnosis.


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