‘The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes’

“Where was the truth? Madeleine asked the African violet on the window-sill. She was no longer sure. The vile dog Bob had been dead for years but he would have lied in any case, had he been able. ..”

Three characters:

Ruth pulls the old man’s bag open and stares “into the cat’s unblinking eyes. His back was arched, his ginger hair bristled around his neck, and his legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. Every part of his body signalled, ‘Keep off!’ ” And Ruth (“the lady with the sky in her hair”) gives up nursing to become a taxidermist.

Lisa poses with fellow mathematicians by the patterned brick ‘masterpieces’ and she imagines the picture the camera will preserve: “Dr Lisa Wallace with her long blonde hair, dome-headed, an achondroplasic, small and imperfectly formed, against a backdrop of miniaturised perfection.”

Madeleine, widowed sheep-farmer in the Lake District, realises that “hiding, and hidden away, she had wasted her married life because she hadn’t known she had the strength to resist. But she knew now …”

Friendship, memories, objects: how do we preserve the past? And how do we deal with the hand that life has dealt us?

For the three very different women, whose lives become intertwined, these stark questions have been the undercurrent of their lives – but, within the Cumbrian landscape, they learn to deal with them with warmth and humour .

ISBN 9781503036918
Littoralis Press/Amazon CreateSpace, p/b, £9.95 p/b 2015 (2nd edition)

Also Kindle versions through Amazon, and as ePub versions through Kobo etc

Comments and reviews

An intriguing novel in a haunting setting, rich in texture, humorous and concerned, raising important questions about science and our relation to the natural world, to the individuals we know and to the communities we live in. A lovely book. Jenny Uglow

An exhilarating and compelling read. A powerful and haunting story of genetic difference, interwoven with maths, taxidermy, and the tragedy of foot and mouth disease.Professor Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate

A many-faceted book … The account of the dreadful days of foot-and-mouth disease in the last epidemic is agonising and the Cumbrian accent is perfect.Jane Gardam

A charming, intelligent and engrossing book, with enough dark heart to drag it away from the domain of standard female fiction fare and into much more engaging territory. I found myself drawn in by the delicate prose and fascinating descriptions … an engrossing and enjoyable read.Kat Arney, LabLit Read the full review

A rich, absorbing, intriguing novel … All of (the characters) felt like real people, whom I would want to know. And they were dealing with authentic issues; from everyday problems like relationships and family rivalry to the impact of foot-and-mouth on the local Cumbrian community. … An absorbing, clever writer …. – Mary Zacaroli, Oxford Times Read the full review

Ann Lingard skilfully weaves a handful of lives together … This engrossing and unusual tale is a window on the soul… and highlights something no embalmer can preserve: what it means to be an ordinary human being. – Michael Brooks, New Scientist

The book’s strength lies in the intense sense of time and place it creates in the reader’s mind. Images are conjured like old Polaroid photographs; faded snapshots filled with tinted memories – whether they are the horrors of sheep farming during the foot and mouth epidemic, or fleeting moments shared between illicit lovers. … a warm and atmospheric read. – Amy Strange, Bionews



The anatomists

Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) – anatomist, embalmer, man-midwife and praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, botanist with an interest in insects …

van neck & ruysch
The anatomical lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch: Van Neck

The Surgeons’ Guild was housed in De Waag in Amsterdam. My friend and former colleague, Dr Wil van der Knaap, was able to gain entrance for the two of us to see not only the painted heraldic shields of the surgeons, including the central shield for Frederik Ruysch himself, inside the roof of the restored Theatrum Anatomicum, but also the ‘masterpiece’ patterns of the bricklayers’ Guild (see ‘Patterns’ below).

Ruysch sometimes referred to himself as a konstenaar, or artist, and his Wunderkammer – of preserved plants and animals and human foetuses, dried, embalmed or fixed in alcohol, and his moralistic preparations and Tableaux of skeletons that were symbols of vanitas mundi – was visited by many high-ranking academics and others, including Peter the Great (who eventually bought the collection).

Cornelius Huyberts’ engravings of the Tableaux are preserved in the volumes of Ruysch’s Opera Omnia, the Thesauri,  in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photographs of all the pages of the Thesauri have more recently become available on the website of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médécine.

Tableaux from Thesaurus VIII
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

These Tableaux show Ruysch’s artistry in preparing tissues such as blood vessels and the mesenteric tissues from around the gut, and arranging them to represent handkerchiefs and trees and – more morbidly here – an opened tomb or sepulchre created from a preserved uterus, containing a foetus with a ‘crown of natural flowers’.

Title page, and Tableau I, Thesaurus VIII explanations
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

The Scot William Hunter (1716-1783) was, like Ruysch, an anatomist, embalmer and man-midwife, and was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. Remnants of his large anatomical museum – including the plaster casts of gravid uteri, and the bottles of human eyes mentioned in Ruth’s blog-post Making Eyes – are now held at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum.

His anatomy dissections and lectures, and his embalming methods that allowed long-term dissections of cadavers, were famous and led to many ground-breaking discoveries. It’s worth noting that his lectures and demonstrations to the Royal Academy of Arts on the importance of scientific observation and accurate interpretation are still very relevant to the work of writers and artists today!

zoffany hunter
Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter lecturing

The use of écorchés (flayed preserved corpses) to demonstrate the body’s musculature is well-recorded and discussed elsewhere, but Hunter – again like Ruysch – sometimes arranged his specimens in ‘artistic’ poses. The body of a hanged smuggler was fixed in the position of a dying Roman soldier before rigor mortis set in: the écorché of ‘Smugglerius’ was used as a teaching aid and subsequently immortalised as a plaster cast by William Pink, still held in the collection of the Royal Academy.

William Hunter’s younger brother John Hunter (1729-1793) was also a surgeon and anatomist and a naturalist, who accumulated his own large collection of animals and humans, both dead and alive, in his own museum. A large part of the collection remains in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (Thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image)

In the background are the bones of the feet and lower legs of Charles Byrne, ‘the Giant O’Brien’ (died 1783), as recounted in the blog-post Copper Kettles by taxidermist Ruth Kowslowski in the novel: “Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.”  There is a fascinating video about Charles Byrne’s skeleton and genetic studies on acromegaly (a form of giantism) in the online version of the article “Should the skeleton of the Irish Giant O’Brien be buried at sea?” by Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer.


As for Ruysch’s children, Rachel Ruysch was not only adept at making lacy sleeves for embalmed babies, but became a highly-respected artist, preserving the images of flowers and insects and reptiles in the rich colours and deep textures of her still-life paintings.


rachel ruysch glasgow
An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)

My thanks to ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image


What was the significance of the post-cards on the Café Waag table?

(Lisa) hastily pushed the postcards into a pile. They were all aerial views of tulip-fields; some were striped like the rough canvas of a deck-chair, narrow bands of red, orange, green and yellow; in others, the patterns were more intricate arrangements of rectangles and trapezoids, bounded by the dark curving ribbons of canals.” There is a longer extract from this chapter under Chromosome 4 of Ken MacLeod’s Human Genre Project.

tulip fields
Tulip fields: Frans Lemmens

Frans wrote to me that this postcard (which I bought in 2001) is “the best selling tulip image card in Holland. The publisher and I were astonished about this. We thought before that it would do well, but definitely not that it would become the best selling of all tulip fields”.

And what was so special about the brick patterns inside De Waag?

waag bricklayers1
The bricklayers’ ‘masterpieces’: photo Wil van der Knaap

The answer to the questions is that Lisa, Stefan, Kees and their colleagues – mathematicians, theoretical physicists, astronomers – were in Amsterdam for a conference on patterning and quasicrystal structure – and like crystallographers and the artist Maurits Escher before them, were working on the practice and theory of how shapes and images could be fit together to fill two- and three- and multi-dimensional space


As for the modern science of quasicrystals, my thanks to Professor Ian Stewart, who suggested Lisa might work on quasicrystals and sent me many relevant reprints, and to Professor Uwe Grimm.  Uwe, with the help of cardboard models laid out on our kitchen floor, helped me try to get to grips with the concept of the quasi-periodicity of repeating patterns in crystals: see, for example, What is Aperiodic Order? 

‘Making eyes’

cover 5crop
1st edn. cover. Photograph of artificial eye from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, by Rosamond Wolff Purcell (with my thanks)

As taxidermist Ruth explains about her work, “It’s so important to get the eyes and the eyelids right … the face is everything, and it’s far too easy to get the expression wrong.

Glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are probably best-known for their series of exquisite and scientifically-detailed flowers in the Ware Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Boston, USA, and the glass models of invertebrate animals (including sea-anemones modelled on PH Gosse’s engravings).

They also made glass eyes, for humans.

White spheres lie on cotton-wool in the compartments of a flat wooden box: blue, brown or green circles, dark centres – pot-boilers, money-spinners: artificial human eyes. On a workbench there are small bottles, pinboxes and wooden trays containing different body-parts: glass tentacles of different shapes and colours, sponge spicules, tiny shells. ‘Mix ’n match’ invertebrates amongst the powdered glass and pigments.” (from Ruth Kowslowski’s blog-post ‘Making Eyes’)

Philip Henry Gosse exclaimed about the beauty of the multi-faceted eye of the dragon-fly. Insects have ‘compound eyes’, made up of many individual units each with a lens and light-sensitive cells that form an image. The surface of some compound eyes – like those of the fruit-fly, Drosophila – looks a bit like the surface of a raspberry, each separate unit bulging slightly outwards.

The structure and image-forming method of insect eyes could not be more different from that of vertebrate eyes, or even eyes of the squid and octopus. Yet in the mid-1990s, Walter Gehring and his colleagues performed a series of what turned out to be ground-breaking experiments in the field of developmental genetics – they showed that the gene pax6 which initiates the early stages of eye-formation in the mouse could also initiate eye-formation in Drosophila. Not a mouse eye – but a fly eye. If the mouse gene was inserted into fly cells that would normally form a leg or antenna – a fly eye grew instead!


See Figures 3 and 5 of Induction of Ectopic Eyes by Targeted Expression of the eyeless Gene in Drosophila

As Ruth writes: “We know now that Evolution is a conservationist and throws very little away: ‘You want an image-forming retina? There’s a bit of photosensitive pigment kicking around somewhere. A bit of this and a little bit of that, let’s try them in this order instead …’ The ingredients are mixed in a different sequence, to a different recipe.”


This photo of William Hart’s fighting squirrels held in the collection at Castle Ward was in a National Trust magazine in 2002 – and was a major stimulus in making me want to write about a taxidermist.

ntpl boxing squirrels

© NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.
My thanks to the National Trust and their Photo Library for permission to use this image

The Victorians were very fond of these anthropomorphised specimens, and artist Polly Morgan has taken this trend to new, exciting levels. In the novel, Ruth mentions Walter Potter’s ‘Kittens’ Tea-Party’ and although all of Potter’s works are now held in private collections, there are photos of several of his kitten tableaux at the Booth Museum, Brighton – where Booth’s own taxidermal preparations are on display.

Walter Potter: Kittens’ tea-party

To learn more about how taxidermists work, I visited and watched George Jamieson at Cramond and Colin Scott in Hawick.

This very good BBC video , A Taxidermist’s Tale, shows George (who also taught Polly Morgan) at work.

The 2001 Foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Cumbria

Madeleine Tregwithen, one of the main characters in The Embalmer’s Book, had her sheep flock ‘culled out’ in 2001; her neighbour Daniel’s pedigree herd of cattle was subsequently infected and killed.

So much has been written and photographed about this terrible time, so many stories have been recorded in print and audio and on film. Mathematical analyses and future predictions of the spread of disease continue, based on the very large data set that was gathered at the time.

Nick May’s exhibition of photographs, Till the cows come home, continues to haunt me.


nick may's Dodds-Parlour-1

‘Dodds’ parlour’.
© Nick May. I am indebted to Nick for giving me permission to use this photograph

Note:  Herdwick semen and embryos were collected during FMD and stored in the Sheep Trust’s gene bank, and were later were used successfully to breed new lambs: see my article, ‘Moving On‘ on page 22 of Firecrane#2


The character Lisa Wallace, mathematician at the University of Liverpool, is an achondroplasic.

Tom Shakespeare, a friend and former colleague, with whom I worked for two years on out two-year Wellcome Trust-funded Talking Science in Cumbria project, is himself achondroplasic – and he introduced me to Jo Hookway and Margaret Milne, both of whom were delightfully generous (and humorous) in helping me to try to understand what it is like to be a female ‘person of restricted growth’. Sandy Marshall, formerly of the Restricted Growth Association also gave me lots of helpful background information.

There is more about achondroplasia – about a 19th-century skeleton in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh, and about James Jack who was a technician there, in the stories I wrote during my Visiting Fellowship at the Genomics Forum. ‘Stories about dwarves’, copied elsewhere in this blog, in addition to containing one of Joyce Gunn Cairns’ delicate drawings, also has an extract from the novel about ‘Lisa’.

Tom Shakespeare and Professor John Burn of Newcastle University made these ‘talking heads’ videos about achondroplasia.

(videos coming soon – sorry for delay)

The videos are reproduced with kind permission from Newcastle University – ©1998 Copyright Newcastle University; All Rights Reserved.
My thanks to Tom and John, and the University audio-visual service.

You should have been terminated!’ John Burn tells Tom ….



What do you look like now? What will you look like then?

The 4th blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, Chapter 19, The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes

Louis van Bils sold his secret recipe for embalming bodies to the States of Brabant and the University of Louvain, in 1664; it required copious quantities of rum and brandy. In 1669 de Bils also tried to sell his recipe in the northern Netherlands, in Leiden and Amsterdam, with the help of Dr Tobias Andreae, ‘Professor of Physick at Duysburgh on Rhyn’, but they met considerable resistance from Dr Frederik Ruysch. His own recipe was secret, after all, and would later be the envy of a Russian Czar.

These days embalming is a quicker, cheaper process, syringes attached to electric pumps, cheap ready-made preservatives, and suction tubes. Let’s not bother with the details. Better to drink the rum and brandy with the funeral meats.

Regnier de Graaf, 17th-century Dutch anatomist and physician (and also a Fellow of the Royal Society in London) whose name lives on today in the Graafian follicles of the ovary, devised a syringe that Jan Swammerdam found very useful. By then, the European anatomists were all at it, shooting up warm coloured waxes or mercury or resins into blood vessels and lymphatics, and dissecting tissues or dissolving them away – corrosion  casting – to follow the course of the now-visible vessels. (Some still do it today, with the modern techniques of injection and plastination. Anatomy can no longer keep a secret.)

William Hunter, surgeon, accomplished teacher and accoucheur to royalty, and his brother John, surgeon and anatomist, their assistants and their protegés – they were all busy injecting and dissecting, delving into the twists and anastomoses of the body’s vessels, in chickens and alligators, rabbits and frogs, humans, dogs and leopards. For how could one perform corrective surgery on humans in the metaphorical dark? Comparative anatomy was a useful tool, for what might be indistinct in one species might be more clearly visible and understood in another.

De Graaf started with the proverbially fecund rabbit, William Hunter worked with women. In 1751 he procured the body of a woman in late pregnancy, and during the next 20 years he studied pregnancies at various stages.  There are ten life-size plaster models of the gravid uterus in Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, each uterus in situ in the abdomen, the mother’s thighs sawn through to expose gigots of meat. No lacy caps disguise the stumps, this is anatomy for instruction not moralisation. We don’t know whether the real-life mothers were prostitutes nor do we care. The colours of  the plaster casts are as fresh and bright as though uterus and foetus are alive, pink flesh, red and blue blood. The complex spatial puzzle, the three-dimensional fit between mother and child is made clear. ‘The whole of them are exactly like nature herself, and almost as good as the fresh subject’.

(See below (1) For further information on these images)

Hunter employed artists like Jan van Rymsdyck to draw and paint pictures of the injected and dissected specimens at each stage. The texture of the life-size paintings in The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus (1774) is almost the equal of Rachel Ruysch’s skills, a window is reflected in the damp membrane around a life-size foetus rather than on the moist bloom of a Ruyschian grape. Or on the glass cornea of an artificial eye.

Amongst the many specimens in the Hunterian Museum is a glass receptacle containing one of William’s injected placentas, a grey slab of tissue through which the silvery worms of mercury coil, anastomose and interdigitate. Who discovered what? John Hunter, too, had worked on the human uterus. Dispute arose between the brothers, and Benjamin Franklin again poured oil on their troubled waters. In Joshua Reynold’s portrait of John, the glass jar standing close to Giant O’Brian’s bony feet holds a section of placenta injected with red wax.

John, now Surgeon-General in the army, experimented on bringing dead bodies to life, or the near-dead, anyway, bodies rescued from near-drowning. By pumping warm air into their lungs, they were resuscitated and began to breathe again. Although he dissected and described the electric organs of the ray Torpedo, he did not try to use electricity to galvanise bodies to life. That was for Mary Shelley to imagine. But in 1818 James Jeffroy, Regius Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow, used bellows to blow air into the lungs of the dead murderer Matthew Clydesdale. The terminals of the newly-invented galvanic battery had already been connected to Clydesdale’s body, and when the current was switched on, his eyes opened, his tongue protruded and his lips moved. Did Jeffroy believe the man had come back to life? He plunged a scalpel into the murderer’s carotid artery, and the man ‘fell dead on the floor’. Onlookers fainted!

Dr William Hunter and his colleague Dr William Cruikshank put the injection technique to a less honourable use. In 1775 they embalmed Mrs Mary van Butchell, aged 36 years, with the help of her dentist husband Martin. Hunter’s recipe was quick and simple. Mix 5 pints oil of turpentine, 1 pint Venice turpentine, 2 fluid ounces oil of lavender, and vermilion. The solution was injected into Mary’s blood vessels until all her skin took up the reddish colour and the body was left to lie for a couple of hours to allow the solution to diffuse further through her tissues. Then her viscera were removed and washed in water, and injected and steeped in camphorated ‘spirits of wine’.  She was injected a second time, her viscera were replaced and the body cavities filled with camphor, nitre (potassium nitrate) and resin before being sewn up. The ‘outlets’ of her body were also filled with camphor and her skin was rubbed with oils of rosemary and lavender. Wearing a lace dress and with a rosy-pink complexion, Mary was laid on a bed of Plaster of Paris to absorb moisture and, it is said, was displayed in the window of Martin’s house.

It is also said that this bizarre display was (a) to drum up custom for Martin’s dental practice and (b) because Martin could have access to Mary’s money only while she was ‘above ground’. Whatever version of the truth, the second Mrs van Butchell was unimpressed. Mary was sent to stay at Hunter’s museum in Great Windmill Street.

Preservation for the after-life, preservation as an object of worship, preservation to ‘make a point’, icons and auto-icons, anatomical aids and anatomical art: we humans can rationalise almost anything that we do. Lenin, a modest man, did not have much say about the matter after his death, but Jeremy Bentham (died 1832) definitely wanted to hang around and be useful. It’s a myth that he wanted to be displayed at University College London, for he wished to be useful as an anatomical specimen, and it’s a myth that he was embalmed. He was a taxidermal preparation, dressed in his own clothes which Professor George Thane noted in 1898 ‘were stuffed with hay and tow around the skeleton, which had been macerated and skilfully articulated.’ The head of the specimen is ‘so perfect that it seems as if alive’ – and is made of wax. Bentham’s real head was mummified and dried, not unlike one of the shrunken heads in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Collection. Wrapped in a bituminous cloth, it was originally placed out of sight inside his torso.

The dead have so many secrets, so many different stories.

Frank Buckland did not mention the state of his hero John Hunter’s body when he found the coffin in St Martin’s vault but there are instances of bodies that fail to decay. Some of the 18th –  and 19th-century bodies excavated from Christ Church crypt in Spitalfields in 1984 were preserved by saponification, their fatty tissue having converted into a stable brownish-white wax of saturated fatty acids and their salts This adipocere characterises the famous ‘Soap Lady’ whom Joseph Leidy gave to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum in 1874. Perhaps the same had happened to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddall. It is said that she remained intact and beautiful when the impoverished drug-addicted poet sent Charles Augustus Howell to retrieve his poems from her coffin (though it’s certainly a myth that her red-gold hair had continued to grow so as to fill the coffin).

Not so beautiful are the bog-bodies nor are they as well preserved as the fatty ‘bog-butter’, 2000-year-old wrapped packages recently found buried in an Irish bog. But the torso of Lindow Man from a Cheshire bog and the bodies of Tollund and Grauballe Men from Denmark are a couple of thousand years old, and probably the victims of ritual killing. Tanned, shrunken but preserved by the anoxic acidity of peat, with teeth and hair intact, they can still reveal some secrets and Grauballe Man is the most revelatory of all.

Dissections are out of the question because these bodies are valuable archaeological specimens, but computerised tomography or CT scanning uses X-rays to generate 3D images so we can nevertheless look inside. Grauballe Man doesn’t have a hard skeleton because the acid peat has dissolved the calcium, so his ‘bones’ are more like rubber. And his face has been re-modelled by the earlier conservators at the museum who padded the skin under his eyes with putty like a Pharaonic mummy. Sadly for Irish Cloneycavan Man, his face has been re-modelled too, but by the murder weapon. But he still has lovely red hair, slicked into a Tin-Tin quiff with Iron Age hair-gel, a mixture of vegetable oil and the resin of a French or Spanish pine.

No scalpel is needed now to look at bones and sinews, no syringe to find blood vessels and lymphatics. Sophisticated machines can look inside our living bodies, we can even watch our heart beat. We can even watch our foetuses suck their thumbs.Twin CT-scanners, combined with positron emission tomography, PET, can create pictures of the insides of living bodies as they have never been seen before.

As for the preserved dead, we can analyse the DNA of their last meal. ‘Ötzi’, deep-frozen for 5000 years in an Ötztal glacier, ate ibex and red deer and vegetables before the arrow penetrated his shoulder.

Mis-quoting Papin, ‘Through thy science … a dead person lives and teaches and, though speechless, still speaks’. But the story, mis-remembered, can speak with many tongues.


(1) Reflection of a dissection room window in the chorion (outermost membrane) covering a foetus – for more on Jan van Rymsdyck’s drawings and etchings of William Hunter’s dissections of the gravid uterus, see The Sterile Eye blog.

The artificial eye is in Peter the Great’s collection in St Petersburg and was photographed by Rosamond Wolff Purcell for the chapter ‘Dutch Treat: Peter the Great and Frederik Ruysch‘ in Finders, Keepers, Stephen J Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Hutchinson 1992 (she generously gave Ann Lingard permission to use the image on the cover of the First Edition of The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes). There is a short video about the book on YouTube.

Rachel Ruysch’s painting,  An arrangement of flowers by a tree-trunk, is in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. (Ann Lingard thanks the ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image.)

Copper Kettles

The (edited) 2nd  blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, from The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, Chapter 9

hunter relics catalogue

On July 5th 1893 an Exhibition of ‘A Collection of Hunterian Relics’ opened at the Royal College of Surgeons, in London. Not the relics of Dr William Hunter, FRS and President of the Royal Academy, but of his younger brother, John, the naturalist and surgeon, born in Lanarkshire in 1729, and died, very suddenly, in London on October 16th 1793.

Amongst the items on display is a ‘Copper, in which the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, who was exhibited in London as O’Brien the Irish Giant, was boiled.’ The copper was lent by Professor Chiene, of Edinburgh. The catalogue has a further explanatory note: ‘This copper was in Hunter’s house in Earl’s Court and was sold there in 1866 when the house was pulled down. On the death of Byrne in 1783, Hunter obtained his body and macerated it in this copper … The skeleton of Byrne is in the College Museum.’ As indeed it is, to this day.

As for poor Hunter’s sudden death, there is also exhibited the ‘Sofa on which John Hunter died. Whilst speaking at a meeting of the Board of Governors at St George’s Hospital on October 16th 1793, Hunter was contradicted by one of his colleagues. He immediately left off his speech and in an excited state hurried to an adjoining room; where he fell into the arms of Dr Robertson and almost immediately expired.’ Fortunately for him, his body was not macerated in the copper, but was placed in a vault at St Martin’s in the Fields. Of which, more later.

The College Museum has an engraving of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Hunter, and Byrne is thus twice immortalised for, in the top right corner of the portrait and behind Hunter’s head are the lower portions of two gigantic femora and their two feet – the legs of that most famous Tall Man who, from the angle of his skeletal feet, must be standing on tip-toe, perhaps to increase his height even more.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (My thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image.)

John Hunter has a square, kindly, thoughtful face and his forehead is broad and tall beneath his curly reddish hair. He doesn’t look like a giant-killer.

To be fair, it seems that poor Charles Byrne, aged 22, height 7 feet 7 inches, drank himself to death. The story of Byrne is well-known, much has been written about him, both fact and fiction. He was born on the Derry/Tyrone border in 1761 and, because those were times when the exhibition of ‘freaks’ was commonplace,  Jack Vance, from a neighbouring village, persuaded him that he could get rich if he toured the shows and fairgrounds: a sideshow attraction. On April 11th 1782, Byrne and Vance (self-important as the Giant’s Agent) reached London and on April 24th an advertisement proclaimed ‘Irish Giant. To be seen this and every day this week, in his large elegant room, at the cane shop, next door to late Cox’s Museum, Spring Gardens.’ Admission was half-a-crown. By the late autumn, the public was jaded, the novelty had worn off, the price had dropped and the Giant O’Brien had moved twice, to rooms no longer so large and elegant. A year after his arrival in London, he was robbed outside a pub – of £700, presumably his entire worldly wealth which, for some reason, he was carrying in his pocket.

Despair, too much alcohol, and ill-health – Charles Byrne knew he was dying and somehow he also learnt that the anatomist John Hunter was very keen to obtain a giant’s skeleton. Byrne didn’t want his bones to be boiled, he didn’t want to be exhibited any more, alive or dead. He gave instructions that after his death his body should be watched day and night until a large lead coffin had been built. His body was to be placed in it and it should be carried (how many tonnes would a giant lead coffin weigh?) out to sea and sunk. A newspaper reported after the event that ‘Byrne’s body was shipped on board a vessel in the river last night … to be sunk in 20 fathom water: the body-hunters … have provided a pair of diving bells, with which they flatter themselves they shall be able to weigh hulk gigantic from its watery grave.

No diving bell was needed. Hunter, having sent his assistant Howison as spy, bribed the men whom Byrne had employed to sink him. Fifty pounds, one hundred pounds, the price escalated. Five hundred pounds was later reported as the sum involved. Byrne’s body was removed and carried by hackney coach then Hunter’s carriage to Earl’s Court where, since Hunter feared that his body-snatching would be discovered, Byrne’s body was ‘quickly cut to pieces and the flesh separated by boiling.

‘I lately got a tall man’, Hunter wrote to Sir Joseph Banks.

Presumably John Hunter and Howison (not to be confused with his brother William Hunter’s assistant, William Hewson) boiled and re-assembled the skeleton themselves. Ten years earlier William Hunter had fallen out with Hewson, for Hewson ‘had employ’d a Man to pick Bones out of the Tubs and fit up a Skeleton for him, without Leave’. Benjamin Franklin was called in to settle the dispute (Benjamin was often called in for this purpose). Although Hewson was highly skilled at injecting lymphatics and preparing specimens, he was eventually dismissed – and disinherited.

shepherd hunterian
TH Shepherd’s engraving of the Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London

In Shepherd’s 1840 engraving of the College Museum, Charles Byrne’s skeleton with its smiling skull towers over the other exhibits from the top of a mahogany case. A photograph taken in 1852 shows him prominently displayed.

charles byrne skelton
Brendan Holland and Marta Kobonits examine Charles Byrne’s skeleton in 2011 (see note 1)


And so he remains, in the 21st Century, and we think of him kindly and with sympathy. Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.

The copper with which Charles Byrne is unfortunately associated was lent to the Exhibition of Hunterian Relics by a Scottish professor; Frank Buckland, Esquire, son of Dean Buckland of Islip, Oxfordshire, lent a Chair. The chair bore a brass plate with the following inscription: ‘This Chair is made from the bedstead of John Hunter…’ Buckland had been given the bedstead by ‘Professor Owen, FRS., etc. who wrote “ … it is the frame of the bedstead in which John Hunter lay when brought from St George’s Hospital”. ’

What a tangled network of old boys’ ties! Owen, of dinosaurs and founder of the Natural History Museum, the devious Owen, a curator of the Hunterian Collection – and Frank Buckland (1826-1880),  naturalist, collector, taxidermist, expert on fish and fisheries, and a kindly, well-liked man.buckland

Nearly 100 hundred years after the giant Byrne’s death, in May 1871, Buckland was visited by ‘a strange party from the other side of the Atlantic’: Miss Swan the giantess (7 feet 6 inches) and Captain Martin van Buren Bates, ‘about as tall’, and both aged 24 years old. Bates was ‘a splendid-looking fellow, very unlike pictures of the giant in the “fe fa fum; I smell the blood of an Englishman” legend.’ Not only was Bates splendid, but he and Miss Swan apparently made a splendid couple, too. ‘I make bold to say that Miss Swan is the most agreeable, good-looking giantess that I have ever met,’ Buckland wrote. ‘She is ladylike in manners and address and would be a most agreeable neighbour at a dinner-party.’ He had the opportunity to test this three years later, when he entertained the splendid couple at dinner in honour of their marriage.

Giants came to Britain from all around the world, Chinese, American, Irish and French. Buckland dined with ‘the Chinese Giant’, Chang Woo Gow. Buckland himself was the cause of a ‘breach of discipline’ in his regiment, a spreading roar of laughter one Sunday in 1862, when he appeared on church parade in the company of ‘Brice the French Giant and a dwarf then exhibiting in London.’ Brice, like the skeletal Byrne, was apparently 7 feet 7 inches tall, and a well-proportioned and amiable man. A frequent visitor to Buckland’s house, he gave him a pair of his shoes and a cast of his hand as mementoes. There is a story that ‘A lady dwarf was one day invited to meet him, but with untoward results; the good-natured giant took her up, as a little girl, on his knee, causing an explosion of indignation. “I am nineteen,” she cried, “and to treat me like a baby!” It was long before her ruffled dignity could be appeased.’

As for John Hunter, his body was deposited in the vaults of St Martin’s in the Fields in 1793. In 1859 Frank Buckland determined to find the body of his hero, ‘the greatest of Englishmen’, and spent two weeks searching through the vaults. ‘The stink awful’, he wrote in his diary. Then on February 22nd he ‘found the coffin of John Hunter. At work all the morning and about three in the afternoon found it, the bottom coffin of the last tier but one. It is in excellent condition, and the letters on the brass plate as perfect as the day they were engraved. “John Hunter Esq., died October 16th, 1793, aged 64”.’

On February 23rd, Buckland went down into the vaults again with Professor Owen: ‘I wish I could have made a sketch of him, with his hand on the coffin, looking thoughtfully at it; it would have made an excellent subject.’ Buckland was very ill for several days after this rummaging in the foetid air, but he was well enough to attend the re-interment of Hunter’s coffin (and presumably therefore of Hunter’s bones) at  Westminster Abbey in late March.

The photograph that he took of the coffin was presented to the Royal College of Surgeons and displayed in the Hunterian Relics Exhibition, on a stand in the middle of the Library: the furniture and the Copper were placed along the North wall.

Charles Byrne, the Giant O’Brien, smiled inscrutably in the hall downstairs.


(1) Brendan Holland has the same genetic mutation as Charles Byrne:

See ‘How an Irish giant and an 18th century surgeon could help people with growth disorders


‘Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of Irish giant’