Abraham Colles was born in 1773, the same year that American colonialist disguised as Indians emptied 342 chests of tea into Boston harbour to avoid paying taxes to the British Crown. These levies were no doubt required to fund the activities of people like Captain James Cook who was meanwhile engaged in trying to find new territories around the islands of New Zealand. Colles grew up in a small village near Kilkenny and graduated in Arts from Trinity College, Dublin. He received a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeon’s in Dublin in 1795, the same year that the British took control of the Cape Province from the Dutch. A few months later he left Ireland to study in Edinburgh, from where he gained his M.D. in 1797. His main interest was in surgery, and on completion of his degree Colles was fortunate enough to secure an intern position with the eminent surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. It is said that Astley Cooper was the first man to tie off the abdominal aorta while treating an aortic aneurysm. For whatever reason, Colles walked all the way from Edinburgh to London, and apparently completed the 400 miles in just eight days.
In 1800, Ashley Cooper became surgeon to Guy’s Hospital and Colles returned to start private practice in Dublin. For a long while he found it difficult to make ends meet, but during the period he was elected resident surgeon to Dr. Steeven’s Hospital. The hospital was founded by Dr. Richard Steven’s (1653-1710) who had been more successful in attaining wealth and who had left his fortune to his sister Grizel, upon whose death it was to be used to build a hospital within the city of Dublin. Dr. Stevens had been twice elected President of the College of Physicians. His father was a clergyman from Wiltshire, and had come to Ireland at the time of Oliver Cromwell. The hospital his sister opened in 1733 and was equiped to house 40 patients. By 1804, Colles had already developed a reputation and was elected Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeon’s in Ireland. Interestingly Sir Ashley Cooper was elected to the same position in England, some seven years later. Colles remained in his position at the Royal College of Surgeons until 1836, during which time he wrote many articles, including the famous ‘ On fracture of the carpal extremity of the radius’ in the year of 1814. During the same period, Sir Astley Cooper remained busy, had even removed a tumour from the head of King George 1V and had been made a baronet. It should be said that Colles was recognised as being an exemplary surgeon and teacher. He was the first to introduce mercury therapy for the treatment of syphilis, which was prevalent in the Dublin of the period. He also noted that a child born with the disease tends to infect the healthiest nurse but never its mother. Abraham Colles resigned his position in Dr. Steven’s Hospital in 1842, the same year that Abraham Lincoln married the social climber Mary Todd in Springfield. He died one year later in the same year that Richard Wagner first performed his opera ‘The Flying Dutchman’, and Ulysses S. Grant finally gave up his dreams of becoming a mathematician and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from West Point Academy.