Hugh Owen Thomas was born on 23rd August 1834 in Bodedern, Anglesey, the eldest of Evan and Jane’s (née Owen) seven children. His father was seventh in a line of bone-setters in an Anglesey farming family and was keen that his sons continued in a healing occupation. He was, however, aware that increasingly the medical establishment were seeking to exclude ‘unqualified’ practitioners and accordingly sent each of his five sons to study medicine at Edinburgh University. In 1851, prior to his medical course, Hugh Thomas spent four years ‘apprenticeship’ working with his uncle Dr Owen Roberts, who was a doctor at the Liverpool workhouse infirmary.
After qualifying he returned to Liverpool and by 1859 had opened his own practice at 24 Hardy Street L1 in the heart of Liverpool’s docklands. In 1864 he married Elizabeth Jones, the daughter of an architect and builder and her nephew, Robert Jones, came to live with them while he studied at the Liverpool school of medicine. He would subsequently support and then succeed Hugh Thomas in his work. In 1866 Thomas moved to 11 Nelson Street L1, which would be his home for the rest of his life.
His patients were largely dockers and shipyard workers and his treatment of their severe accidents led to his developing a wide range of orthopaedic approaches which in their way were quite revolutionary. He was held in high esteem by the community, his free Sunday clinics being a blessing for the poor of the city who would arrive in handcarts, wheelbarrows and donkey carts. In contrast with his innate modesty, Thomas drove around the town in a scarlet phaeton of his own design, drawn by two jet black horses. As he did not hold any hospital appointments his work was slow to gain recognition but his publication, in 1875, of Diseases of the Hip, Knee and Ankle Joints, with their Deformities brought his work to wider notice. His work was particularly followed in the USA, receiving an honorary degree of MD from the University of St Louis in 1890.
Hugh Owen Thomas died at his home from pneumonia on 6th January 1891, his funeral being attended by thousands of Liverpool’s poor who had benefitted from his care. Although his work was largely forgotten after his death, due acknowledgement was to come some years later in the First World War when his nephew, Robert Jones, became director of orthopaedic surgery for the British army. By his initiative the Thomas splint for compound fractures of the lower limbs was introduced for the transport of stretcher cases from the front to casualty stations. This greatly reduced the mortality rate and saved countless men the need for amputations.
Nelson Street plaque commemorating the site of Thomas' home and surgery.
Hugh Owen Thomas' gravestone Toxteth Park Cemetery.
There is a comprehensive entry for Hugh Thomas in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A biography, The Life of Hugh Owen Thomas by D Le Vay was published in 1956 but I have been unable to track down a copy.
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