Colles, Abraham (1773–1843), surgeon, was born 23 July 1773 at Millmount, Co. Kilkenny, second son among three sons and one daughter of William Colles, owner of Kilkenny marble quarries, and Mary Anne Colles (née Bates). Educated at Kilkenny College, he entered TCD (1790), was apprenticed to Philip Woodroffe at Dr Steevens' Hospital, Dublin (1790–95), was admitted licentiate of the RCSI (1795), and graduated BA (1795) from Dublin University and MD (1797) from Edinburgh University; he subsequently assisted the leading London surgeon Astley Cooper (1768–1841) and visited London hospitals.
Returning to Dublin (1797), he was appointed physician at the dispensary for the Sick Poor, Meath St., and district visitor to the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society, and taught anatomy and surgery privately. He was appointed successively resident surgeon (1799–1813), assistant surgeon (1813–41), and governor (1819–41) of Dr Steevens' Hospital. In 1803, having failed in his bid for the chair of anatomy and surgery at TCD, he took the college to court, hoping to quash the election of William Hartigan (qv) to the chair, arguing that Hartigan, having only an honorary degree in medicine, was not qualified to give clinical instruction; his legal action failed.
He was appointed co-professor of anatomy and physiology (1804–27) and professor of surgery (1804–36) of the RCSI, having been elected member (1799), assistant (1800), censor (1801), and president (1802, 1830) of the college. An outstanding teacher, he reformed and extended surgical instruction and, more than anyone else, made the surgical profession respectable in Ireland, which resulted in a significant increase in student numbers at the college. He was skilful in drawing graphic pictures of disease and, as a clinical teacher, readily admitted his own shortcomings in order to instruct his students: on one occasion at a post-mortem examination of a former patient on whom he had operated for stricture of the rectum, he faced his class and said, ‘Gentlemen, it is no use mincing the matter, I caused the patient's death’ (Fallon (1972), 204).
One of his great strengths as a surgeon and as a teacher was his knowledge of surgical anatomy. His Treatise on surgical anatomy (1811), the first anatomical work designed on topographical lines, earned him several eponyms for his anatomical discoveries, including Colles' fascia and Colles' ligament; it also gave the first description of the spread of mammary cancer to the adjoining lymph glands. In 1814 Colles' fracture was so named after he published his classic paper ‘On the fracture of the carpal extremity of the radius’ (Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, x (1814), 182–6). His Practical observations on venereal disease and on the use of mercury (1837; German translation 1839) made him an authority in the field; he recommended the administration of small rather than the customary large doses of mercury, and formulated Colles' law, following his clinical observation that a diseased infant will infect a wet nurse but not the mother who suckles it – that the mother had the disease in latent form was only understood later. He published three books and twelve surgical papers; his lectures were published in the Dublin Medical Press (1844) and edited by Simon McCoy as Lectures on the theory and practice of surgery, by the late Abraham Colles (1844), and his son William published his manuscripts in the Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science (1853–7). His bibliography is listed in Martin Fallon's Abraham Colles.
Visited in his life by doctors from all over the world, he ranks as one of Ireland's great nineteenth-century surgeons, though his anatomical and clinical discoveries are considered important rather than revolutionary. ‘Erinensis’ (Herris Greene) – columnist of the Lancet – referred to him as a ‘laborious, shrewd . . . and practical surgeon. As an operator he has many equals and some superiors, but in advice, from long experience and a peculiar tact of discovering the hidden causes of diseases, he has scarcely a rival’ (Fallon, Sketches, 24–5). He was co-founder, co-editor, and contributor to the Dublin Hospital Reports (1815–30), a founding president of the Dublin Pathological Society (1838), and consulting surgeon to the Lying-in Hospital (Rotunda), The Royal City of Dublin Hospital, the Victoria Lying-in Hospital, and the Institution for Diseases of Children. He developed a lucrative practice – fees of £754 in 1807 increased to £6,168 in 1826 – and invested money in a large estate, Bonnettstown Hall, Co. Kilkenny, and in small farms in Kilkenny and neighbouring counties. His bust (1837) by Thomas Kirk (qv) and portrait (1838) by Martin Cregan (qv) are preserved in the RCSI. He rejected a baronetcy (1839) declaring that such distinctions had no attraction for him.
Dignified, of middle height and well proportioned build, he was described by a contemporary as having ‘perfect probity, the soundest of understandings, and the kindest of hearts’ (Lyons, 58). Resigning various appointments due to ill health – he suffered from gout, bronchitis, and emphysema – and having convalesced in Switzerland, he asked that a post-mortem examination be carried out after his death, which was published in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, i, no. 2 (1846), 303–22. He lived at 21 St Stephen's Green, Dublin, and died there 1 December 1843. Medical schools suspended their classes; he was given a public funeral and buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. A suite of rooms – one graced with a stained-glass window with the Colles arms – was named in his honour at the RCSI (1948), the Abraham Colles annual post-graduate lectures were initiated in 1956, and a Colles bicentenary international conference was organised in Dublin (1973) by the RCSI. A ward is named after him in St James's Hospital, Dublin.
He married (1807) Sophia Cope; they had six sons and five daughters. His son William Colles (1809–92), who succeeded his father as surgeon at Dr Steevens' Hospital (1841), was regius professor of surgery at TCD, president of the RCSI (1863), and surgeon to the queen in Ireland.