Colles, Abraham (DNB00)

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COLLES, ABRAHAM (1773–1843), surgeon, was born in 1773 at Milmount, near Kilkenny, being descended from an English family of good means long settled in co. Kilkenny. During his education in Kilkenny grammar school a flood swept away part of the house of a doctor named Butler, and carried a work on anatomy into a field near Colles's home. The boy picked it up; the doctor gave him the book, and this led to Colles's choice of a profession. Entering Dublin University in 1790 he was at the same time apprenticed to Dr. "Woodroffe, resident surgeon in Steevens's Hospital. He refused to be tempted aside from his profession, though Edmund Burke, a family acquaintance, recommended his publishing some 'remarks on the condition of political satire,' which he had written. When his uncle talked of the name he was sacrificing, the youth replied: 'A name, sir! Yes, as an author, and then not a dowager in Dublin would call me in to cure a sore throat.'

Having obtained the diploma of the Irish College of Surgeons in 1795, Colles studied at Edinburgh for two sessions, and graduated M.D. He went on foot from Edinburgh to London, where he remained some time, assisting Astley Cooper in the dissections for his work on hernia, and attending the London hospitals. In 1797 Colles returned to Dublin, with little means and no interest to forward his plans. At first he practised medicine and was appointed visiting physician to the Meath Hospital; but in 1799 he gave up medicine on receiving the appointment of resident surgeon to Steevens's Hospital. This he held till 1813, then becoming visiting surgeon to the same hospital.

Colles early became a masterly operator, being cool and dexterous, and singularly fertile in resource. When he first tied the subclavian artery for aneurism, the operation had only twice been attempted in England, never in Ireland. He was the first man in Europe to tie the innominate artery, and he did it successfully. In his unfinished 'Treatise on Surgical Anatomy,' Dublin, 1811, pt. i., he discusses the forms of hernia and various important surgical operations in a manner which shows his deep and accurate study. For many years he occupied some hours a day in dissection. His name is, however, most widely known in connection with Colles's fracture of the radius, a fracture just above the wrist presenting peculiar phenomena, usually the result of a fall on the palm of the hand, which had escaped the notice of surgeons before his time, notwithstanding its comparative frequency. His paper on the subject appeared in the 'Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,' 1814, vol. x.

In 1804 Colles became professor of anatomy and surgery in the Irish College of Surgeons, and held the office thirty-two years. His ability as a lecturer greatly extended the repute of the college and of the Dublin Medical School. In his lectures he was constantly watchful to prevent the influence of preconceived theories on his own and his pupils' judgment. His lectures were published in 1844 in the 'Dublin Medical Press,' and separately in two volumes, from notes by Simon McCoy; they are among the most easily comprehended and practical extant. Colles's practice, both as physician and surgeon, was very remunerative, for many years exceeding 5,000l. per annum. He remained surgeon to Steevens's Hospital till 1841, and died on 16 Nov. 1843. He was twice president of the Irish College of Surgeons, in 1802 and in 1830, and was offered a baronetcy in 1839, but declined it. He married in 1807 Miss Sophia Cope, by whom he had a large family. A son, William Colles, became regius professor of surgery in Dublin University.

Though somewhat lacking in speculative power, Colles had great perspicuity and the art of seizing on salient points. Cautious in criticism, he expressed simple ideas in clear language. He was cheerful, generous, and modest, a liberal in politics, and a protestant in religion, despising fanaticism and charlatanism. He never lost an opportunity of frankly admitting his blunders. On one conspicuous occasion at a post-mortem examination of a patient on whom he had operated he turned to the class and said, 'Gentlemen, it is no use mincing the matter; I caused the patient's death.' Colles was about the middle size, well proportioned and of dignified manner, with a shrewd, clear eye, a fine forehead, and decided mouth.

Selections from the works of Colles have been edited with annotations by Dr. R. McDonnell for the New Sydenham Society (published 1881). They include his classic work on the 'Use of Mercury in Venereal Complaints,' originally published in 1837, and also 'Essays on Lithotomy,' 'Tying the Subclavian Artery,' 'Dissection Wounds,' and on Colles's 'Fracture of the Radius.'

[Memoir of A. Colles, Dublin University Magazine, xxiii. 688; Memoir prefixed to Works, ed. McDonnell ; Preface and Notes to Colles's Lectures on Surgery.]

G. T. B.