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Abraham Colles

Born  1773
Died  1843

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Irish surgeon and anatomist, born July 23, 1773, Millmount near Kilkenny; died November 16, 1843.

Biography of Abraham Colles

Abraham Colles was born in Millmount, Kilkenny, Ireland, of humble origin. His father was in charge of a family-owned stone quarry specialising in the working of marble, which had made Kilkenny widely known. Colles had three brothers and a sister. His father died when Abraham was only six years old. He had, however, a capable and devoted mother who continued the family business and struggled to give her children a good education.
It is said that during his attendance at Kilkenny Grammar School a flood swept part of the house of a local doctor away. An anatomy book was found by Colles in a field near his home. When he took the book to the doctor, Dr Butler, Butler told him to keep it, and it was this incident that influenced Colles' choice of future profession.

Following general preparatory school Colles entered Kilkenny College, a famous school called "Eton of Ireland". Among other things he studied Jonathan Swift (1667-1775), the author, and George Berkeley (1685-1753), the philosopher. In 1790 Colles began studying the arts at Trinity College, Dublin, while at the same time being accepted as an apprentice to Philip Woodroffe, a surgeon at the Dr. Steevens' (1653-1710) Hospital (Richard Steevens, 1653-1710). After hard work Colles in 1795 was promoted to Bachelor of Arts at Trinity College, and in the same year received his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. He then went to Edinburgh to complete his medical studies. In June 1797 Colles received his MD - Doctor of Medicine - after having defended his doctoral thesis titled De venesectione.

From Edinburgh Colles spent eight days walking - on foot! - to London where he worked for some time with one of England's then future celebrities in surgery, Astley Paston Cooper (1768-1841). He returned to Dublin the same year, 1797, was first physician at the Meath Hospital and started teaching anatomy and surgery. At the same time he established a practice of his own, which was later appointed dispensary to "the sick poor" in the city. During the first working year of his career he earned a total of eight pounds. His second year was much more prosperous, however, as he in 1799 succeeded his old teacher Philip Woodroffe as resident surgeon to the Dr Steevens' Hospital. He was also co-director of the Cow Pox Institution. He remained with Dr. Stevens’ Hospital until 1841.

This was the turning point in Colles career; in the year 1800 he made a total of 421 pound. The year before, 1799, he had been elected to the Royal College of Surgeons, allowing him to take on apprentices of his own.

Trinity College, just down the road from the Royal College, had endured mismanagement in its department of anatomy and chirurgery for a number of years by its chairman, Dr. James Cleghorn, who resigned in 1802. In fact, his work had been done for a number of years by Dr. William Hartigan, previously professor at the Royal College. When the chair became vacant, Dr. Colles applied for the post, but Dr. Hartigan was selected in his stead. Dr. Colles challenged the university on the grounds Dr. Hartigan was not properly qualified, but lost in court. He never applied again, but did send his five sons to Trinity.

In 1804 he was appointed professor of both anatomy/physiology and surgery. at the Royal College of Surgeons (Ireland), to which he was later elected president in 1802, at the age of only 29 years, and again in 1830. When offered knighthood as a baronet in 1839, he declined.

Colles was both generous and modest. A competent lecturer and pedagogue, he contributed to making his college one of the most respected in Europe for a couple of decades. During his year in Dublin Colles marries Sofia Cope. The marriage became both happy and fertile, with nine out of eleven children reaching an adult age. Of them only the oldest son followed in his fathers footpaths, in his turn even he being elected to president of the Royal College of Surgeons.

When Colles in 1836 resigned from 32 years in the chair of surgery, failing health was the chief cause. During a large part of his adult life he suffered from bronchitis and, besides, ha often had diarrhoea and bouts of gout. Despite the fact that he suffered from heart failure during his last years, he continued practicing until his death in 1843. William Stokes (1805-1878) gave a detailed report of his last illness. Colles had a state funeral, and on the day of his burial all students of medicine had the day off to honour his memory.

Colles took a great interest in anatomy and spent much of his time in the dissection room. His anatomical discoveries were not epoch-making, but they still bear his name - Colles' ligament and Colles' fascia. Besides he was a great innovator in topographical anatomy, and he concerned himself with the treatment of club foot and published his discoveries on this in 1818.

Colles also took an interest in syphilis, which was something of a scourge in his time. He made a clinical observation which was to become known as Colles' layer. He observed that a child infected at birth never caused a lesion on the mother's breast, and from this fact drew the wrong conclusion - that the mother was resistant, ignorant of the fact that the mother already had the disease. He published his observations in 1837 in his book "Practical observations on the venereal disease and the use of mercury". In it h says: A child born of a mother who is without any obvious venereal symptoms ... and shows this disease when it is a few weeks old ... will infect the most healthy nurse ... an yet this child is never known to infect its mother." This has since been known as Colles' law, although the observation had been made earlier by Simon de Vellembert in 1565. Colles' observations stood for almost 70 years, until they were refuted by Wassermann. Colles resigned his position at Steevens' Hospital in 1842 and died the following year.


  • Surgical Anatomy. 1811. With the description of Colles' fascia.
  • On the fracture of the carpal extremity of the radius.
    Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 1814, 10: 182-186.
    Colles' fracture. Reprinted in Medical Classics, 1940, 4: 1038-1042.
  • On the operation of tying the subclavian artery.
    Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 1815, 11: 1-25.
    Colles tied the subclavian artery in 1811 and again in 1813.
    Reprinted in Medical Classics, 1940, 4: 1043-1072.
  • Practical observations on the venereal disease, and on the use of mercury.
    London, Sherwood, Gilbert & Piper, 1837. Page 304.
    Colles introduced small doses of mercury in the treatment of syphilis.
  • Lectures on the theory and practice of surgery. 2 volumes.
    Colles' principle textbook.

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