Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tomes, John

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TOMES, Sir JOHN (1815–1895), dental surgeon, eldest son of John Tomes and of Sarah, his wife, daughter of William Baylies of Welford in Gloucestershire, was born at Weston-on-Avon in Gloucestershire on 21 March 1815. His father's family had lived at Marston Sicca or Long Marston in the same county since the reign of Richard II in a house mentioned in the ‘Boscobel Tracts’ as having sheltered Charles II after the battle of Worcester, when Jane Lane [q. v.], a relative of the Tomes family, assisted in his escape.

Tomes was articled in 1831 to Thomas Farley Smith, a medical practitioner in Evesham, and in 1836 he entered the medical schools of King's College and of the Middlesex Hospital, then temporarily united. He was house surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital during 1839–40, and while holding this office he invented the tooth-forceps with jaws accurately adapted to the forms of the necks of the various teeth. These were the first exemplars of the modern type of forceps which supplanted the old ‘key’ instrument. His attention was turned during the same period to the histology of bone and teeth, for he fed a nest of young sparrows and a sucking-pig upon madder and examined their bones with a microscope bought of Powell. This work brought him under the notice of Sir Thomas Watson (1792–1882) [q. v.] and of James Moncrieff Arnott, who advised him to adopt dental surgery as his profession. He was admitted a member of the College of Surgeons of England on 21 March 1839, and in 1840 he commenced practice at 41 Mortimer Street (now Cavendish Place). On 3 March 1845 he took out a patent (No. 10538) for a machine for copying in ivory irregular curved surfaces, for which he was awarded the gold medal of the Society of Arts. In 1845 he delivered a course of lectures at the Middlesex Hospital which marked a new era in dentistry. He was also much occupied with the question of general anæsthesia, shortly after the introduction of ether into surgical practice by William Thomas Green Morton of Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1847 he administered it at the Middlesex Hospital for the extraction of teeth as well as for operations in general surgery.

He contributed an important series of papers on ‘Bone’ and on dental tissues to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ between 1849 and 1856. The most valuable of these is perhaps that upon the structure of dentine, in which he demonstrated the presence of those protoplasmic processes from the odontoblasts to which the name of ‘Tomes's fibrils’ was long given. He was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society on 6 June 1850.

He early took a deep interest in the welfare of the dental profession, and was one of those who in 1843, and again in 1855, unsuccessfully approached the Royal College of Surgeons of England with the view of more closely allying English dentists with English surgeons. His interest in the subject never waned, and in 1858 he was successful in inducing the Royal College of Surgeons to grant a license in dental surgery. He was also one of the chief founders in 1856 of the Odontological Society and in 1858 of the Dental Hospital, where he was the first to give systematic clinical demonstrations. After the dental licentiateship had been established about twenty years, Tomes, ably assisted by James Smith Turner, was instrumental in obtaining the Dentists Act of 1878 to insure the registration and render compulsory the education of those who proposed to enter the dental profession.

After carrying on a large and lucrative practice for many years, Tomes retired in 1876 to Upwood Gorse, Caterham, in Surrey, where he remained until his death. He was elected on 12 April 1883 an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and on 28 May 1886 he was knighted. He was twice president of the Odontological Society, and in 1877 he was elected chairman of the dental reform committee. On the occasion of his golden wedding he was presented by his professional brethren with an inkstand, and the rest of the money subscribed was devoted to the endowment of a triennial prize bearing his name. It is awarded by the Royal College of Surgeons of England for researches in the field of dental science in its widest acceptation.

Tomes died on 29 July 1895, and was buried at St. Mary's, Upper Caterham. On 15 Feb. 1844 he married Jane, daughter of Robert Sibley of Great Ormond Street, London, architect. By her he had one surviving son—Charles Sissmore Tomes.

Tomes began to practise dentistry when it was a trade, and he left it a well-equipped profession. The change was in great part due to his personal exertions; but he did even more than this, for he showed that a dentist was capable of the highest kind of scientific work—that of original observation. His mind was at the same time eminently practical, and he was possessed of no small share of mechanical ingenuity.

Tomes published: 1. ‘A Course of Lectures on Dental Physiology and Surgery,’ 8vo, London, 1848. These lectures have become classic; they were delivered at the Middlesex Hospital, but in regard to them Tomes made the significant entry in his diary, ‘I am resolved never to deliver any more lectures unless I have a class of at least six.’ 2. ‘A System of Dental Surgery,’ 12mo, London, 1859; 3rd edit., revised and enlarged by his son C. S. Tomes, 12mo, London, 1887; translated into French, Paris, 1873. This is still a standard work.

There is a good portrait of Tomes at the Odontological Society. It was painted by Carlisle Macartney in 1884.

[Obituary notices in Journal of the British Dental Association, 1895, xvi. 462; British Medical Journal, 1895, ii. 396; Nature, 1895, lii. 396; additional information kindly given to the writer by his son, Mr. C. S. Tomes, M.A., and by his brother, Mr. Robert F. Tomes, F.S.A., of Littleton, near Evesham; The Pedigree of the Tomes Family, prefaced by Dr. Howard, in Misc. Geneal. et Herald. new ser. iii. 273–9.]

D’A. P.