Pietro Longhi, 1757, “True portrait of the Giant Cornelio Magrat the Irishman; he came to Venice in the year 1757; born 1st January 1737, he is 7 feet tall and weighs 420 pounds. Painted on commission from the Noble Gentleman Giovanni Grimani dei Servi, Patrician of Venice.” Museo di Rezzonico, Venice. Photograph: Osvaldo Böhm.
The short life of Cornelius Magrath
Cornelius Magrath was born 5 miles from Silvermines in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1737. During his adolescence, he developed a rare disorder of the pituitary gland that caused some of his bones to grow excessively. Between the ages of 15 and 16 Magrath went from 5 feet to 6 feet 8.75 inches in height. He was later described in the London Magazine for August 1752 as being of gigantic stature, but boyish and clumsily made.
His extraordinary appearance attracted a lot of attention and he was persuaded to exhibit himself. He was put on show in Bristol and London in 1753, before touring extensively in Europe. In 1857 he was in Italy, where his portrait was painted by Longhi (see above). In 1760 he became ill in Flanders and returned to Dublin where he died on May 16th. He was 23 tears of age.
In 7 years Magrath had achieved considerable fame as the ‘Irish Giant’ and his death and dissection quickly became the stuff of legend. In 1833, a report claimed that he died as a result of an injury he sustained while performing as a giant in the Theatre Royal. Numerous other legends grew up around the ‘capture’ of his body by anatomists in Dublin University, Trinity College (TCD).
A promotional print engraved by Maag in Germany in 1756 to promote appearances by Magrath. This image has been produced from the negative of a photograph made by Daniel J. Cunningham in 1891. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.
In 1890, Daniel J. Cunningham’s set out to establish the truth about Magrath’s stature and dispel some of the myth’s about his short life. Cunningham presented a report to the Royal Irish Academy in 1891, which remains the definitive account of the man and his skeleton. Cunningham confirmed that Magrath suffered from acromegaly and presented evidence that he was “positively deformed” as a result of this condition.
He was not the “well-built, proportioned, straight-limbed man” with pleasing and regular features as represented by Maag in 1756 (above). Swanzy built on Cunningham’s research and published a report in 1893 that confirmed significant deformation of Magrath’s eye sockets. This is recorded by in Longhi in his 1757 portrait, along with the disabling condition of “knock-knee” that was described by Cunningham.
In 1902, huge crowds attended a lecture on his skeleton that was given by Cunningham in Belfast. Curiosity in Magrath remains just as strong today judging by the current controversy over the retention by TCD of his skeleton. The controversy kicked off on the History Show on RTE Radio 1 and was picked up by chat show host Joe Duffy who argued that TCD should bury the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath because it had been ‘body snatched’ and his skeleton put on public display without his consent.
The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath
The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath is no longer on public display but is still held by the School of Anatomy in TCD. It is the most famous item in a historic collection of anatomy specimens, records, and instruments that is held in the ‘Old’ Anatomy Building. The building was decommissioned in 2014 and the collection is being resolved as part of post-grad research programme managed jointly by the School of Medicine TCD, Maynooth University, Kimmage Development Studies Centre, and the Irish Research Council.
Ciarán Walsh reconstructing the skull measuring device developed by Daniel J. Cunningham in the 1890s. The “Dublin Craniometer” is one of a number of anthropometrical instruments that were discovered when the ‘Old’ Anatomy building in Trinity College Dublin was being decommissioned in 2014. The skull, incidentally, is a plastic model. Photo: Ciarán Walsh.
I am employed as a full-time researcher on the project and resolving ethical issues relating to the retention of human remains is a major part of the work in hand. Indeed, the research proposal had to pass rigorous ethical approval procedures in Maynooth University, the School of Medicine TCD, and the IRC before I could get access to the ‘old’ Anatomy building and the collections held therein, which include the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath.
To bury or not to bury, that is the debate.
The Magrath “case” is interesting because there is no evidence that the body snatching story, however entertaining, is true. The only contemporary account of his death states simply that “Upon death, his body was carried to the Dissecting House,” but that account was probably written by either Robert Robinson, Professor of Anatomy in TCD, or Dr. George Cleghorn, the University anatomist (see Cunningham’s 1891 report to the Royal Irish Academy).
What we can say with some certainty is that Magrath died of a wasting disease (phthisis) and it is clear from the Robinson/Cleghorn account that he was receiving medical attention at the time of his death. It records that Magrath’s “complexion was miserably pale and sallow; his pulses very quick at times for a man of his extraordinary height; and his legs were swollen.” Elsewhere, it states that his pulse beat almost sixty times a minutes “on his arrival here.” It sounds like Magrath was being cared for in the School of Medicine TCD when he died.
The body snatching legend, best described by Hooper, has it that Magrath was being waked when medical students, egged on by Robinson, spiked the porter and made off with his body, which was immediately dissected in secret. Such a sensational body snatching could not have escaped notice and, furthermore, the dissection was both public knowledge and uncontroversial. Historians of anatomy in TCD have always believed that the body was paid for by Cleghorn and that the acquisition of the body was legitimate and ethical by the standards of the day. The problem here is that there is no documentary evidence of Magrath having consented to dissection or the permanent display of his skeleton.
The Anthropological Laboratory in TCD in 1891, from a cyanotype or blueprint of a photograph taken by Charles R. Browne. The laboratory ceased operations in 1903 and its collections were reorganised in 1948. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.
That brings us to the contemporary issue of retention or burial. The report of the Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections (WGHR), published in 2003, set out public policy in relation to British Museums. The authors of the report acknowledged that human remains in collections “represent a unique and irreplaceable resource for the legitimate pursuance of scientific and other research” (p. 28) but concluded that collections of human remains in museums should be subject to the sort of regulatory frameworks being developed for health authorities and hospitals in Britain (p. 81).
One of its principal finding was the need to remove legislative barriers to repatriation or burial by British museums, effectively making the ethical disposal of human remains in museum collections its default position (p. 20, para. 58). In 2004 the introduction of the Human Tissue Act allowed nine national museums to return human remains under 1,000 years old, where they consider it appropriate to do so. The British Museum rejected an application for repatriation in 2012 on grounds other than those provided for in the legislation, which illustrates the complexity of the issues involved and the need to consider claims for repatriation or burial on a case by case basis.
In terms of regulation in Ireland, the Human Tissue Bill has been stalled since 2013 and the Inspector of Anatomy, appointed by the Medical Council in the interim, has oversight of the ‘Old’ Anatomy collections in TCD. This leaves the burial of Magrath’s remains at the discretion of the college authorities; which means that any decision will have to deal with public perception as to the “morality” of retaining identifiable human remains in collections of scientific material. That is deeply problematic, and Duffy’s attempt to frame the issue in body snatching folklore is distorting what should be a valuable and timely debate.
British Museum,2012, Request for Repatriation of Human Remains to the Torres Strait Islands, Australia. Online document: http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/management/human_remains/repatriation_to_torres_strait.aspx
Cunningham, D. (1887). The Skeleton of the Irish Giant, Cornelius Magrath. The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 29, 553-612. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30078824
Department of the Taoiseach, LEGISLATION PROGRAMME FOR AUTUMN SESSION 2013, Published: 18th September, 2013: http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/irish/Foilseacháin/Foilseacháin_2013/LEGISLATION_PROGRAMME_FOR_AUTUMN_SESSION_2013.html
Hooper, A. (1987). Dublin Anatomy in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Dublin Historical Record, 40(4), 122-132. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30100813
Human Tissue Act 2004, UK: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/30/contents
Report of The Working Group on Human Remains, November 2003,Dept. for Culture Media and Sport, Great Britain: http://www.museumsbund.de/fileadmin/geschaefts/dokumente/Leitfaeden_und_anderes/DCMS_Working_Group_Report_2003.pdf
Swanzy, H. (1893). Note on Defective Vision and Other Ocular Derangements in Cornelius Magrath, the Irish Giant. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1889-1901), 3, 524-528. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20490478
Trinity College, Dublin, 2016, The Academic and Artistic Collections – a summary: First produced February 2010; contact and website updates March 2016: http://www.tcd.ie/artcollections/assets/pdf/TCD%20Academic%20and%20Artistic%20Collections%20summary.pdf