Abraham Colles, Professor of Anatomy, Surgery and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the President of RCSI in 1802 and 1830, dies on November 16, 1843. A prestigious Colles Medal & Travelling Fellowship in Surgery is awarded competitively annually to an Irish surgical trainee embarking on higher specialist training abroad before returning to establish practice in Ireland.
Descended from a Worcestershire family, some of whom had sat in Parliament, Colles is born to William Colles and Mary Anne Bates of Woodbroak, County Wexford, on July 23, 1773. The family lives near Millmount, a townland near Kilkenny, County Kilkenny, where his father owns and manages his inheritance which is the extensive Black Quarry that produces the famous Kilkenny black marble. His father dies when he is 6 years old, but his mother takes over the management of the quarry and manages to give her children a good education. While at Kilkenny College, a flood destroys a local physician’s house. He finds an anatomy book belonging to the doctor in a field and returns it to him. Sensing the young man’s interest in medicine, the physician lets him keep the book.
Colles goes on to enroll in Trinity College Dublin in 1790 and is indentured to Philip Woodroffe, studying at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, The Foundlings’ Hospital and the House of Industry hospitals. He receives the Licentiate Diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1795 and goes on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, receiving his MD degree in 1797. Afterward, he lives in London for a short period, working with the famous surgeon Sir Astley Cooper in his dissections of the inguinal region.
Following his return to Dublin, in 1799, Colles is elected to the staff at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital where he serves for the next 42 years. In October 1803, he is appointed Surgeon to Cork-street Fever Hospital, and subsequently becomes Consulting Surgeon to the Rotunda Hospital, City of Dublin Hospital, and Victoria Lying-in Hospital. He is a well-regarded surgeon and is elected as president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in 1802 at the age of 28 years, subsequently also serving as president in 1830. In 1804, he is appointed Professor of Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery at RCSI.
In 1811, Colles writes an important treatise on surgical anatomy and some terms he introduces have survived in surgical nomenclature until today. He is remembered as a skillful surgeon and for his 1814 paper On the Fracture of the Carpal Extremity of the Radius. This injury continues to be known as Colles’ fracture. This paper, describing distal radial fractures, is far ahead of its time, being published decades before X-rays come into use. He also describes the membranous layer of subcutaneous tissue of the perineum, which comes to be known as Colles’ fascia. He also extensively studies the inguinal ligament, which is sometimes called Colles’ ligament. He is regarded as the first surgeon to successfully ligate the subclavian artery.
In 1837, Colles writes “Practical observations on the venereal disease, and on the use of mercury” in which he introduces the hypothesis of maternal immunity of a syphilitic infant when the mother has not shown signs of the disease. His principal textbook is the two-volume Lectures on the theory and practice of surgery. His writings are important, though not voluminous. Some of his papers are collected and edited by his son, William Colles, and published in the Dublin Journal of Medical Science. Selections from the works of Abraham Colles, chiefly relative to the venereal disease and the use of mercury, comprise Volume XOII. of the Library of the New Sydenham Society, published in 1881. They are edited and annotated by one of the most distinguished Fellows of the RCSI, Robert McDonnell. His Lectures on Surgery are edited by Simon McCoy, and published in 1850. In tribute to his distinguished career, he is awarded a baronetcy in 1839, which he refuses.
Upon Colles’s retirement as Professor of Surgery, the Members of RCSI pass a resolution which includes “We have also to assure you that it is the unanimous feeling of the College, that the exemplary and efficient manner in which you have filled this chair for thirty-two years, has been a principal cause of the success and consequent high character of the School of Surgery in this country.”
In 1807, Colles marries Sophia Cope. His son William follows in his footsteps, being elected to the Chair of Anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1863. Another of his sons, Henry, marries Elizabeth Mayne, a niece of Robert James Graves. His grandson is the eminent music critic and lexicographer H. C. Colles. His granddaughter Frances marries the judge Lord Ashbourne and her sister Anna marries his colleague Sir Edmund Thomas Bewley.