Members of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council have called for the respectful burial of the remains of an individual affected by gigantism who died in 1760.
A motion brought to Council by Deputy Arts Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) Convenor Catherine Arnold calls for the reinterment of the remains of Cornelius McGrath (Magrath), whose skeletal remains have been in the possession of College’s School of Anatomy since his death in 1760.
Magrath, who was born in Co. Tipperary in 1737, grew to be at least 7’3” in height, and as a young man was exhibited at “freak shows” all across Europe.
While the history of how Magrath’s remains were obtained is speculative, College’s website states that his “corpse had been ‘snatched’ by Trinity medicine students” shortly after his death, and they have been exhibited for anatomy students ever since.
Speaking at Council this evening, Arnold said the motion was “particularly poignant because Trinity was the elite college” in the past, and this motion is an opportunity to “try and give back to the people we [College] shunned for so long”.
Another student said that “in Health Science, there’s so much time on the importance of consent and how we treat people, and the fact that [College] still has this specimen goes against those teachings”.
Arnold told Trinity News that regardless of how the remains were obtained, “clear consent to have one’s body displayed in this manner does not appear to be present”.
Arnold said: “I know this is not the first time the question of the burial of Cornelius [Magrath] has been raised and that an ethics board allowed the school to keep Mr [Magrath] in 2017 but this is not ethical in my opinion.”
The motion brought to Council also noted that “the remains in question are not used in lessons”.
Arnold criticised the purely exhibitionary purposes of the remains: “It’s been 200 years and anatomy students learn nothing from the skeleton. Mr [Magrath] was dehumanised in life and Trinity continues to do this in death.”
“Furthermore, the burial of Mr [Magrath] acts as a gesture in good faith and of atonement to the families who were preyed upon and looted in their most vulnerable time, especially given anatomy students still rely on the generosity and trust of people who donate their bodies to aid in their education today.”
“Trinity has a long history with many sins and this is just one small way we can apologise,” Arnold added.
The motion passed at Council also calls for other institutions to bury remains in their possession “to respect the wishes or autonomy of the individuals who were stolen”.
The practice of “body snatching” was widespread in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among medical students and researchers of anatomy, including those from Trinity and the Royal College of Surgeons.
In 2011, Magrath’s remains were displayed to the public in an exhibition marking the 300th anniversary of the College’s School of Medicine, which was founded in 1711.