Colles, Abraham

Abraham Colles (1773-1843)

Development of Surgery & Medicine in Ireland
Anatomical & Surgical Descriptions & treatments

Abraham Colles was born in Millmount House, Kilkenny.   His father ran a family quarry business, and died when Abraham was only 6 years old.   He went to Kilkenny College, the “Eton of Ireland” in its day.  He was given a book on anatomy by a local Dr Butler and this is reputed to have stimulated his medical interest.

He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1795, with a BA, and Licentiate in Surgery.   He then went to Edinburgh, which was one of the premier medical schools of the time, and attended by many Irish, English and Scots students.   He gained his MD there, and then walked to London on foot in eight days to continue his studies under the famous surgeon Astley Cooper.

He returned to Dublin to work in Dr Steeven’s Hospital in 1797.   This was a time of great political unrest and rebellion.   Several of his colleagues were sympathetic to the United Irishmen movement, and suffered in the reprisals that followed. In 1802, he became President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) at the age of 29.   He challenged TCD over appointing his former teacher as Professor in Surgery, but lost that dispute, and ultimately became Professor of Anatomy, Physic and Surgery in RCSI in 1804.

His teaching career was highly successful, and drew crowds of students to RCSI.   He enhanced the reputation of the surgical profession, so that it was no longer considered inferior to medicine.   This was the era of surgery prior to anaesthesia, antisepsis, and antibiotics; so treatments were relatively crude with high mortality from bleeding and infections.   Surgeons had to work rapidly and accurately to minimise the ordeal of their terrified patients.

He is famous for his meticulous anatomical and clinical observations, which continue to be recognised in medical terminology today: Colles’ Fracture of the terminal radius, and Colles’ ligaments and fascia in anatomy.   He wrote internationally recognised texts in surgical anatomy, and the treatment of venereal disease.  

He devoted a proportion of his practice to free treatment of the poor.   He married Sofia Cope, and nine of their eleven children survived.   His eldest son also became President of RCSI.   He retired from his Professorship because of ill health in 1836, but continued to practice until the year of his death in 1843.   He was an essentially modest man; and he died the undisputed head of his profession, having twice refused a baronetcy.


Coakley, D.   (1997) Irish Masters of Medicine   Town House


Doolin, W. 1953, Abraham Colles: A Tribute.   William Doolin, British Orthopaedic Association.

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