Hugh Owen Thomas

Hugh Owen Thomas (1834 – 1891)

Hugh Owen Thomas (1834 – 1891) was a Welsh Orthopaedic Surgeon.

Descended from three generations of Welsh meddygon esgyrin (bone-setters). Thomas was described as a ‘thin dark, fragile man with a sardonic sense of humour. Well under medium height (5ft 3in.) – but of indomitable spirit and unbounded power of application.

Combined University medical education with the family tradition of bone-setting, Thomas stressed the importance of rest in treatment; that an overdose of rest was impossible and that rest must be ‘enforced, uninterrupted and prolonged

Thomas performed little open surgery and was mainly concerned with the design and use of splints; the famous Thomas splint was still in wide use at the end of World War II.

No other pioneer contributed so much in establishing the fundamental principles of orthopedic surgery.Mostofi, 2005

  • Born on August 23, 1834 Bodedern, Wales
  • 1851-1854 Apprentice to his Uncle, Dr Owen Roberts working at St Asaph
  • 1854-57 Medicine at University of Edinburgh (2 years); University College London (1 year) and then Paris (1 year)
  • 1857 – Member of the Royal College of Surgeons MRCS
  • 1858 – Worked ‘briefly‘ with his father Evan Thomas as bone-setter ’72 Great Crosshall Street, Liverpool’
  • 1860-1869 – General practitioner at ’32 Hardy Street, Liverpool’ a deprived area of Victorian Liverpool
  • 1870-1891 – GP and Bone-setter ’11 Nelson Street, Liverpool’ setting up hospital and workshops next door. In 1873 – Thomas’s nephew, Robert Jones arrived at Nelson Street to become apprentice and later his assistant
  • Died 6 January 1891, Liverpool

His profession was his hobby, and in his hobby he included the art of healing in it’s widest scope

Sir Arthur Keith 1919.

Medical Eponyms
  • Thomas test (1875) – diagnostic method for detecting fixed flexion of the hip joint
  • Thomas knee splint (1865)
  • Thomas wrench
  • Thomas collar – to treat tuberculosis of the cervical spine
Thomas knee splint

1865 – Thomas splint first used to treat diseases of the knee such as tuberculosis by prolonged rest and immobilisation. Only later used for management of fractures of the lower limb

In my opinion, there is no support comparable with what is known as a Thomas’s knee splint for any fractures of the middle and lower thirds of the thigh, or fractures of the knee and upper tibia Jones R, 1919


See also: Gray HMW. The early treatment of war wounds. London, Frowde 1919. [Fig 19. Thomas splint in action][Fig 14a, modified upper limb]

No other pioneer contributed so much in establishing the fundamental principles of orthopedic surgery.

Mostofi, 2005

Major Publications

  • Keith A. The Principles and practice of Hugh Owen Thomas. In: Menders of the maimed. Hodder & Stoughton. 1919.
  • McMurray TP. Thomas and his splint. Br Med J. 1946 Jun 8;1:872-5.
  • Cope R. Hugh Owen Thomas: bone-setter and pioneer orthopaedist. Bull Hosp Jt Dis. 1995;54(1):54-60. [PMID 8541785]
  • Mostofi SB. Who’s Who in Orthopedics. Springer; 2005; 330-332
  • Carter AJ. Hugh Owen Thomas: the cripple’s champion. BMJ. 1991 Dec 21-28;303(6817):1578-81. [PMC1676236]
  • Biography: Hugh Owen Thomas (1834-1891) rustic orthopedist. JAMA. 1966 May 16;196(7):658-9. [PMID 5326279]
  • Macnab DS. Hugh Owen Thomas (1834-1891) : The Founder of Orthopaedic Surgery. Can Med Assoc J. 1941 Nov;45(5):448-52. [PMC1827025]
  • Meisenbach MO. A Modification of the Thomas Wrench for the Treatment of Rigid Valgus. Boston Med Surg J 1909; 161:477-478. [NEJM]
  • Buckwalter JA. Activity vs. rest in the treatment of bone, soft tissue and joint injuries. Iowa Orthop J. 1995; 15: 29–42. [PMC2329066]
  • Thomas JL. A reconsideration of the principles and methods of Hugh Owen Thomas: Thomas Splint. [PMC2348659]
  • Thomas JL. A reconsideration of the principles and methods of Hugh Owen Thomas: Reflections on Thomas Splints and practice. [PMC2348877]
  • Henry BJ, Vrahas MS. The Thomas splint. Questionable boast of an indispensable tool. Am J Orthop (Belle Mead NJ). 1996 Sep;25(9):602-4. [PMID 8886198]
  • Robinson PM, O’Meara MJ. The Thomas splint: its origins and use in trauma. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2009 Apr;91(4):540-4. [PMID 19336819]


BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

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