Crean, Thomas Joseph (1873–1923), rugby player, military doctor, and VC holder, was born 19 April 1873 in Morrison's Hotel, Dawson Street, Dublin, the second son and fifth of the eight children of Michael Theobald Crean, barrister of the Irish land commission, and his wife, Emma, née Dunn, whose parents owned Morrison's Hotel. The family lived at Esker House, Upper Rathmines Road, and then at 7 Pembroke Street.
A fine student, Crean was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, before studying medicine at UCD, and St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin. It was at Clongowes that his exceptional rugby ability was first noted and developed. A natural forward, he was big and fast, which, combined with good football skills, made him an outstanding prospect. When he moved to Dublin to study he joined Wanderers RFC, with whom he won a Leinster senior cup in 1894, and his displays for Wanderers led to selection for Ireland in 1894. In his debut year he was an ever-present and essential member of Ireland's first triple crown winning side. In 1895 Ireland were hotly tipped to repeat their success of the previous year, but they were defeated in every game, Crean again playing in all three games. Despite this setback the Irish team won the championship in 1896, beating England and Wales and drawing, surprisingly, against the weaker Scottish team. In all he won nine caps for Ireland and scored two tries, in a short but brilliant international career. In 1896 Ireland earned recognition from the Great Britain selectors when nine Irishmen were chosen for the squad to tour South Africa, including Crean; this was the first Great Britain touring team in which players from Ireland were selected. Crean made a considerable impact: he scored five tries, captained the side to victories in the first and third tests and several provincial matches, and played in all the tests. His height, bulk, speed and football skills made him very hard to stop and he became one of the ‘personalities’ of the tour, and a firm favourite with the local crowd. Indeed such was his popularity that he decided to remain in South Africa when the touring side returned home. Robert Johnson, a fellow tourist, friend and clubmate of Crean, also remained in South Africa. Crean set up a lucrative practice at the Johannesburg hospital.
He was feted for his bravery throughout his life. In 1891 he was awarded a medal for saving a man from drowning in the sea at Blackrock. When the Boer war broke out in 1899 he enlisted as a trooper in the imperial light horse and took part in the relief of Mafeking and the relief of Ladysmith. In March 1900 he was made a captain, but resigned his squadron rank in June 1901 to become a surgeon-captain. In December 1901 he received the VC for bravery for tending to injured soldiers at Tygerskloof while under fire and wounded, and only ceasing when he was badly wounded a second time. His friend Robert Johnson had joined the imperial light horse and was also awarded the VC during the war.
In 1902 Crean was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was a captain in the royal army medical corps (RAMC) from 1902 (when he won the Arnott gold medal) until 1906, when he left to practise medicine in Harley Street, London. On the outbreak of the first world war he rejoined the RAMC as surgeon-captain (later promoted to captain), serving with the 1st cavalry brigade until 1915, and being awarded the DSO. He was wounded several times and mentioned twice in dispatches. In 1915 he was promoted major and became the officer in charge of the 44th field ambulance, British Expeditionary Force, in France. In 1917 he returned to England to take charge of the hospital established in the royal enclosure at Ascot. While at Ascot he saved the life of a jockey who had been thrown from his horse, by removing portions of the bones of his skull using a hammer and chisel.
The strain of his military service left him in poor health, and after the war he struggled to continue his Harley Street practice. He ran into financial difficulties and in June 1922 was adjudged bankrupt. On 25 March 1923 he died from diabetes at his residence, 13 Queen Street, Mayfair, London, and was buried in St Mary's cemetery in Kensal Green, London. In 2001 the South African post office produced a stamp honouring Crean as part of a series commemorating the Boer war. His Victoria cross is on exhibition at the Army Medical Services Museum in Keogh Barracks, Aldershot. In 1905 he married Victoria, daughter of Thomas Heredia of Malaga, Spain; they had two children, Patrick and Carmen.