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Hugh Owen Thomas (1834-91)

Hugh Owen Thomas was one of the great early pioneers of orthopaedic surgery. Born into a family steeped in the secrets of bone-setting, Thomas introduced a series of treatments and devices - including the Thomas splint - that would help revolutionise orthopaedic practice. Unfortunately, the impact of these new ideas was limited in his lifetime. Instead it was left to his celebrated nephew, Sir Robert Jones, to further popularise the innovations originated with his uncle and mentor.

Unlike previous generations of his family, Thomas was medically qualified, and he combined this conventional training with the knowledge of bone-setting that was handed down to him. Establishing a practice in Liverpool, he began to treat the numerous local children left disabled and deformed, mainly by skeletal tuberculosis and polio, but also rickets. Working on the principle that rest and immobilisation was best for limbs and joints inflamed by these illnesses, he devised numerous adjustable splints and frames to apply to his young patients. These could be left in place for years.

Thomas’s methods gained some acceptance, but wider take-up was slow. This was not helped by his abrasive personality. He was quick to criticise his peers, who in turn viewed him as a provincial upstart rather than as a gentleman like themselves. The result was numerous children left untreated and out of sight in homes and hospitals. It was only with the First World War - 25 years after his death - that Thomas’s methods finally gained greater acceptance. Championed by Sir Robert Jones, the use of the Thomas splint alone is believed to have saved the lives of thousands of soldiers who would otherwise have died from their limb injuries.

 

Related links

Bibliography

A J Carter, 'Hugh Owen Thomas: the cripple's champion', British Medical Journal, 303/6817 (1991), pp 1578-1581

H W Orr, On the Contributions of Hugh Owen Thomas of Liverpool Sir Robert Jones of Liverpool and London John Ridlon, M.D. of New York and Chicago to Modern Orthopedic Surgery (Springfield IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1949)

D La Vay, The life of Hugh Owen Thomas (London: Livingstone, 1956)

Glossary:

Orthopaedics

The branch of medicine concerned with the preservation and restoration of the muscular and skeletal systems in the body.

Tuberculosis

An infectious disease that is caused by a bacterium first identified by Robert Koch in 1882. The disease usually affects the lungs first, and is accompanied by a chronic cough.

Polio

An infectious disease affecting the central nervous system. Affected individuals can exhibit a range of symptoms if the polio virus enters the blood stream.