Abraham Colles

Abraham Colles, Surgeon

Eamonn Kiely

If you have occasion to drop in on any of those fine medical men in Patrick Street Kilkenny you will notice the name of their surgery is Colles House. It is called after a distinguished Kilkenny surgeon whose name is still to the forefront for having giving his name to the Colles fracture of the radius, just above the wrist.
Abraham Colles was born at Milmount near Kilkenny in 1773. His father, William, is described as a quarry owner which may be understating the role of the producer of the famous Kilkenny Marble. Abraham attended Kilkenny grammar school. A flood, not unusual in the Kilkenny of those days, swept away Dr Butler’s House liberating a book on anatomy which ended up in a field near Colles’ where the young boy picked it up and, having dried it, proceeded to study it. The kindly doctor gave the book to the enthusiastic student which led him to follow the medical profession. This, despite the promptings of family friend Edmund Burke who spotted literary talent in him and suggested he should publish his writings called “Remarks on the condition of political satire”.
He entered Trinity College in September 1790 and eleven days later was apprenticed to Philip Woodroffe, resident surgeon in Dr Steeven’s Hospital, now the HQ of HSE. Having graduated BA in 1795 and obtained the diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons, the same year, Colles studied at Edinburgh for two sessions and graduated MD in 1797. He next went to London, assisting Astley Cooper in the dissections for his work on hernias and attending London Hospitals. In 1795 he returned to Dublin with little means and no connections to help him. He became visiting physician to the Meath Dispensary. He also became an active district visitor for the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society – a charitable gesture which raised his profile. In 1799 he quit being a physician on receiving the appointment of resident surgeon to Dr Steeven’s Hospital.
Colles became a masterly surgeon, being cool, dexterous, and resourceful. When he first tied the subclavian artery for aneurism it was a first for Ireland and had been done only twice in England. The fracture of the wrist, always associated with him, normally comes from a fall on the palm of the hand – ask any jockey! His paper on this subject appeared in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1814.
Disappointed in not getting a top appointment in Trinity College in 1802 he was active in the Medico-Chirurgical Society and was soon its president. He was appointed surgeon in 1803 to Dublin Fever Hospital and in 1804 he became professor of anatomy and surgery in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, an office he held for thirty two years. He greatly raised the reputation of the school increasing the student number from 60 to 1,000 by 1836. An address he received on his retirement from there said “He had been the principal cause of the success and consequent high character of the school of surgery in this country”.
In his lectures Colles was always careful to prevent the influence of preconceived theories on his own and his pupils’ judgement – the dreaded group think. His lectures were published in 1844 in the Dublin Medical Press. For many years they were among the most easily comprehended and the most practical.
Colles’s practice, both as physician and surgeon, was very remunerative, for many years exceeding £5,000 per annum. He remained surgeon to St Steeven’s Hospital until 1841. He was twice president of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was offered a baronetcy in 1839 but declined. In 1807 he married Sophie, daughter of the Rev Jonathan Cope, rector of Ahascragh. They had a large family. He lived in Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Despite his brilliance he once took the wrong medical option and his patient died. At the post mortem he turned to his class of students and said ‘Gentlemen, it is no use mincing the matter; I caused the patient’s death’ – a far cry from the present practise of admitting blame six years later on the floor of the High Court. Kilkenny’s most famous medical practitioner died in 1843 and is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery.