10 Fantastic Facts About Giants
Photo of Giant Julius Koch, Photographed Around 1900.
Giants - Facts Intermingled With Fiction
Everyone has heard stories about giants. The fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk and the biblical account of David and Goliath are probably the most famous which come to mind, but what are the truths behind these stories?
1 The Cause of Giantism
Practically all cases of giantism are caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland.
I first became interested in giantism, also known as acromegaly or gigantism, when my godson was diagnosed with the condition. From puberty, around the age of thirteen, he was misdiagnosed with migraines. His headaches increased in intensity and by 17 he was in constant pain. More often than not the pain was excruciating and it became difficult to rouse him from sleep, regularly taking a good two hours for him to wake up enough to actually get out of bed. For the most part, sleep took up between 16-20 hours out of 24.
When my godson was born his femur length indicated he would grow to around 5'8" but at sixteen or seventeen he began growing more than was expected. In particular his hands, feet and face noticeably altered
Eventually a brain scan revealed he had a tumour on his pituitary gland causing it to produce excessive growth hormone. He underwent a successful operation to remove the tumour which stopped the production of the hormone and he now leads a normal life.
My Godson's Thumb Compared to His Sister's
2 Symptoms of Giantism
Symptoms of giantism are wide ranging if not treated.
The first sign something is not right is the headaches which become increasingly worse as the tumour grows and can eventually be excrutiating. Then there is the excessive perspiration, so in the early stages a doctor may dismiss a patient's real concerns and put it down to normal teenage growing pains and general smelliness. Only when the headaches become really debilitating might a doctor have an inkling that there is something else going on here. Meanwhile the body is growing unexpectedly oddly.
People with giantism start to tower over their peers, bones thicken and hands and feet enlarge and the leg and arm bones lengthen. In particular, the face changes shape because the lower jaw begins to protrude and the head widens. This means teeth become spaced out, and as the bones develop excessive calcium, ridges form over the eyes. Eyesight too is affected as peripheral vision begins to fail or images appear blurry.
Should a tumour be left untreated the poor person with acromegaly enters a world of pain and suffering. Bones, though thick, are not strong and easily break. Vertebraes fracture and the patient may become hunchbacked as a result. To add insult to injury the knee, hip and shoulder joints are problematic and arthritis usually sets in.
And if that weren't enough the liver, lungs and heart malfunctions kick in together with an enlargement of the bowels leading to constipation.To cap it all sight may be completely lost due to pressure on the optic nerve.
You would not want to be cursed with this syndrome, I can tell you.
The French Wrestler Maurice Tillet 1903-1954
3 Charles Byrne 1761-1793
Charles Byrne was a real life giant born in Londonderry, Ireland in 1761 and became known as the 'Irish Giant'.
His life was one of successive tragedies, not least that he almost certainly was beset by many of the symptoms his condition threw up including the dreadful headaches and sleepless nights.
When he was twenty-one he moved to London - essentially to be gawped at by the general public, joining Cox's Museum and paraded as a freak or to put it a little more humanely, a curiosity.
However this brought him fame and with it, fortune, which he lost one night when he was robbed - all £700 of it - whilst drunk. Heavy drinking had unfortunately taken a firm grip.
One might argue the drinking was understandable considering what he allowed himself to be subjected to what with his interminable physical distress and the money to fund it. But the liver being one of the major organs that comes under strain with acromegaly, large amounts of alcohol intake was definitely not a good idea. His luck ran out not long after the assualt, dying at the age of only twenty-two.
In a final twist Byrne's wishes that his body be buried at sea to avoid finding its way onto a surgeon's dissecting table, was scuppered by an unscrupulous undertaker bribed to swap his body for another. His corpse was bought for the immense sum of £500 by John Hunter and now part of the collection in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.in London.
It's not known exactly how tall he became but most contemporary accounts put him at 8'2" but his skeleton actually measures just 7'7". Though that's tall enough, wouldn't you say?
The Russian composer Sergei Prokoviev wrote his first opera 'The Giant' at the astounding age of ten.
Illustration of Charles Byrne, Irish Giant
Watch Trailers From the Roald Dahl's Film The BFG
4 Treating Giantism
After many months of experiencing dreadful headaches and terrible sleep patterns (he was always wanting to sleep but still felt excessively tired when he'd had twenty hours-worth), my godson was finally referred for an MRI scan. We all knew there was something seriously amiss and it confirmed the presence of the tumour on the pituitary gland.
He had the tumour removed via keyhole surgery. The surgeon inserted a line through his nose down to the growth and cut it away.
Unfortunately the fist operation was unsuccessful; only a miniscule amount of cells need to be left behind and the tumour will regrow, which happened in his case. As soon as his headaches returned we knew another operation was inevitable, but second time around every bit was been taken away and all is well.
There are alternate remedies if surgery is unsuitable or ineffective - it's a very delicate procedure as the pituitary gland is right next to the brain and the danger is that this essential organ may be damaged trying to cure the patient.
Radiation is one though tends to be avoided in children since it might cause learning difficulties and obesity, administration of slow release statins are another or prescribing medication to reduce growth hormone.
The BFG by Roald Dahl, Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Women and Giantism
Giantism isn't confined to males. Women and girls are just as likely to have acromegaly.
5 Giants Inspiring Legends
Every culture it seems, tells stories about giants, from the Celts and Scandinavians to Hindus and peoples of South America. You'll find it in Chinese, Japanese and Islamic folklore - just about everywhere in the world. The Bible too, has it's own tale to tell, but can it throw up some interesting thoughts?
Read on to find out!
"The Boys of the Bible", by Hartwell James. Illustration of David and Goliath.
6 David and Goliath. Why Was a Giant Such a Pushover?
It's one of the most famous stories to include a giant and is written about in the Book of Samuel. And as they are so often portrayed, the giant Goliath is cast as the baddie.
In a nutshell, the Philistines have come up against the Israelites and are preparing for war. Saul, the Israelite leader, and his people are understandably terrified of Goliath, this colossos of a man the Philistines present each day for forty days, goading them to fight him.
“I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man that we may fight together,” roars Goliath at the Israelites.
Goliath is described as six cubits and a span, nine feet or thereabouts, and clad in armour - a truly formidable opponent. But David, the eighth and youngest son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah, persuades Saul to allow him to be put forward as Goliath's opponent, even forsaking the armour Saul offers him, preferring only to carry a pouch of stones and a sling.
And with possibly the most famous sling shot in history, David aims a stone at Goliath's forehead and brings him crashing down.
Now that seems quite incredible. How comes such a seemingly strong adversary is felled with such ease? Perhaps it's not so much of a surprise.
Picture David dancing about from side to side like a boxer, out of the field of Goliath's restricted vision. Goliath has no idea where David is so he can defend himself. And when one considers the ailments Goliath would have been battling, not least the fragility of that forehead contending with its blinding headaches, how heavy a blow would it have taken to bring him down? Well probably not much of one, and to David and the Israelites victory looks like a piece of cake! Finally it falls to David to finish Goliath off once and for all by cutting off his head.
And of course Goliath's giantism would account for his bad temper, shouting curses at the Israelites, pushed forward by the Philistines to be displayed as what was effectively their outlandish personality - much the same as Cox's Museum did with Charles Byrne.
How many People Have Giantism?
Figures for giantism are hazy and vary between 1 in 25000 to 1 in 200,000.
7 The Giant's Causeway
Once upon a time there were two giants, one Irish named Finn McCool and one Scottish called Bennandoner. They disliked each other intensely and Bennandoner decided to come over from Scotland to try and intimidate his rival. Finn McCool wasn't having any of it. He threw great handfuls of the Antrim coastline into the sea to make it easy for him to reach Bennandoner.
But Bennandoner was huge and as he crossed over to capture Finn McCool the Irish giant is saved only by his wife who disguises him as a baby. The baby of course, looked massive in its swaddling clothes.. Bennandoner thought, if the baby is this size, how big will his father be? Daunted, Bennandoner retreated and left Finn McCool alone.
But remaining on the Antrim shore is Finn McCool's pathway, which is fondly referred to as the Giant's causeway.
It's a great story to explain the hexagonal rock formation made from basalt after a volcanic lava flow cooled 60 million years ago.
But that's not the only twist. Charles Byrne came from nearby and many people in Great Britain who carry the acromelagy gene can trace their ancestry to the area. So, yes there were giants around, and still are - just right for the intertwining of fable and fact!
The Giant's Causeway Complete With Boot, County Antrim, Ireland
8 Gulliver's Travels Throws up Another Surprise
Jonathan Swift's most famous literary creation first appeared 1726. It was published by Benjamin Motte who employed no less than five printing houses to hasten its publication in order to circumvent unauthorised copies, such was the original nature of the book's satirical content.
The most celebrated events in the book are the two involving giants, the first where Gulliver himself is the giant among the tiny inhabitants of the land of Lilliput, the second where Gulliver is surrounded by a race of giants, the Brobdingnagians, enormous by any standards at 72 feet tall.
The interesting fact surrounding the penning of this book is that Swift wrote much of it at Loughry Manor, Cookstown, which just happens to be in Tyrone, the very county from where Charles Byrne and it's now know other people with acromegaly have come from.
Although Byrne was born some decades later, he will have come from a line of ancestors with giantism. Surely this cannot be a coincidence. Swift hearing local tales of a giant living nearby? Maybe he even met him and there we have the platform for his great literary work!
The Title Page of the First Edition of Gulliver's Travels
9 Giantism in Animals
Giantism isn't confined to humans. Your pet dog or cat is as likely to develop acromegaly as we are. Rare, but not unheard of.
The cause - again a tumour on the pituitary gland - and symptoms are similar. Heads and paws enlarge and teeth have the spaced-out look. They'll develop skin folds at the back of the throat so when they sleep they'll snore. Also they tend to be both hungrier and thirstier than normal. And they suffer the same organ and joint complaints as humans so it's absolutely no joke.
Diabetic animals with the condition won't be able to make insulin as the excessive growth hormone prevents its production.
Due to the complicated, risky and highly specialised nature of surgically removing a tumour, treatment is problematic, but increasingly veterinary colleges are training students in this field.
Should your pet ever be prescribed a medication containing progestogen, do be aware one of its side effects can be to induce giantism so you might want to give that one a miss.
10: Modern Giants as Film Stars
Some people with acromegaly have found fame on the silver screen. You might associate giants playing a baddie but by no means all are cast in this vein.
Still, probably one of the most memorable evil roles was the henchman in the Bond film Moonraker played by the 7'2" tall Richard Kiel. With his steel teeth and towering predatory presence he displayed a truly menacing adversary completely focussed on his mission to kill the suave Roger Moore. The actor was apparently the complete opposite of this character, and could be described by that well known phrase - a gentle giant.
One fantastic part I love is Lurch, the immensely tall loyal butler in the Addams Family films, played by Ted Cassidy. He had a very successful career which included many voice-overs until his untimely death aged 46 in 1979. He was 6'9.
Not one but two butler film parts were played by Paul Benedict - in Arthur with Dudley Moore and The Man With Two Brains opposite Steve Martin. Apart from a fulfilled on-screen career including parts in Sesame Street and The Jeffersons he was confident enough to direct and picked an Obie award for The Kathy and Mo Show. His acromegaly was treated diagnosed and treated relatively early and he grew to a not-too-lofty 6'4", short in comparison to Ted Cassidy and Richard Kiel, but the large jawline and flattened nose had developed nevertheless.
His eye was always for characterisation. He said, "I try to make each of the characters different. I think the trick is to cement in the reality, to make it logical and real to yourself. Once there's a reality, I think you can make it as crazy as you want it to be."
What better way to regard giantism - as a someone with a difference but with an ordinary outlook and a dedication to their art.
Actor Richard Kiel
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© 2017 Frances Metcalfe