- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Hugh Owen Thomas

Born  1834
Died  1891

Related eponyms

British orthopaedic suregon, 1834-1891.

Biography of Hugh Owen Thomas

Hugh Owen Thomas has been called "the father of British Orthopaedics". He came from a family of bone-setters which descended from the survivor of a shipwreck in 1745 off the north-west coast of the island of Anglesey in North Wales. One of the survivors became a bonesetter, starting a family tradition whose secrets were passed down from father to son for generations. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Evan Thomas, aged 19 and a grandson of the original survivor, had moved to Liverpool to work amongst the seafarers and dockers, but he was finding that the practice of bonesetting, however successful as a treatment, was causing him to be brought to court. There was much jealousy on the part of the orthodox practitioners in the city and, although he never lost a case, he resolved that his sons should train and qualify as doctors, which is what all five of them did.

Hugh was apprenticed to his uncle, Dr. Owen Roberts at St Asaph in North Wales for four years and then studied medicine at the University of Edinborgh and University College, London. He qualified MRCS in 1857 and then returned to Liverpool to help his father, but two years later he moved to another part of the city to set up his independent practice. He was a general practitioner in the slums of Liverpool most of his professional life, treating the poor rather than the affluent Victorian middle classes. He concerned himself primarily with orthopaedic suergery, and is considered the founder of orthopedic surgery in Britain.

In the treatment of tuberculosis and fractures, Thomas strongly advocated the use of rest which should be 'enforced, uninterrupted and prolonged'. The Thomas Test demonstrated the need to keep the spine flat on the bed when examining for hip deformity. For inflamed joints, he made splints that kept the limbs motionless while allowing the patient to walk. His 'Thomas Splint' was introduced to the battlefields of the First World War by his nephew, Sir Robert Jones, and was credited with cutting the death rate from compound fractures from eighty per cent to twenty per cent. The splints were manufactured in his own workshop by both a blacksmith and a saddler. He also invented a wrench for the reduction of fractures and an osteoclast to break and reset bones, as well as a collar for tuberculosis of the cervical spine.

Hugh Owen Thomas was a thin and nervous child who was somewhat delicate. His peculiar temperament in adulthood led many to ignore him and his immense contributions to Orthopaedic Surgery during his lifetime. He could not even work with his father and never held a hospital appointment. The people of Liverpool knew Thomas as a short and quick man, only a few inches over five feet, who always wore a black coat buttoned up to the neck and a sailors cap pulled over a damaged eye. A cigarette was also seen constantly in his mouth. He treated all his patients at his home. His practice was so busy that he started his rounds at five or six in the morning and never left his home for other than professional purposes. The only exception to this were the three times a year when he visited his mother's grave.

Thomas would designate Sunday as his "free day", when hundreds of patients from all over the countryside besieged Nelson Street in the morning, filling the house to overflowing and the surrounding streets with carriages and invalid chairs.


  • Diseases of the hip, knee and ankle joints, with their deformities, treated by a new and efficient method.
    Liverpool, T. Dobb & Co., 1875; 2nd. edition, 1876. Emlaregd 2nd edition, 1876.
  • Contributions to surgery and medicine. 8 parts. London, H. K. Lewis, 1883-1890.
  • William Brockbank:
    The Life of Hugh Owen Thomas. Medical History, April 1957 , 1 (2): 190–191.
  • A. R. Jones:
    The influence of Hugh Owen Thomas on the evolution of the treatment of skeletal tuberculosis.
    The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. British Volume, London, May 1953, 35 (2):309-319.
  • David Le May:
    The Life of Hugh Owen Thomas.
    Edinburgh: E. and S. Livingstone Ltd. 1956. 136 pages.

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