A Bad Fall, a Broken Limb and a Regency Surgeon: Professor Colles and Me

A Bad Fall, a Broken Limb and a Regency Surgeon: Professor Colles and Me

Two months ago I slipped over treacherous dark ice, fell and broke my left wrist. I had never broken a bone before, so it was quite a shock. I had a distal radius fracture, one of the most common wrist injuries, and it wasn’t a pretty sight!

When I fell, my skin didn’t break, but the bone was dislodged in a very peculiar way. I soon discovered that my injury, also known as a Colles fracture, was described for the first time during the Regency. 

A Time of Medical Discoveries

As in other spheres of knowledge, the Regency was a time of change for medicine. Some doctors may have still treated their patients with leeching and cupping, but progress was being made in a myriad other areas.

For example, when researching Lady Bertram’s possible hypothyroidism (a subplot in Miss Price’s Decision) I came across the discoveries around iodine and iodine deficiency that took place around that time, and which are the basis of treatment still today. 

Something similar happens with Colles fractures. Still today, they are named after a Regency physician, Irish surgeon and anatomist Abraham Colles, whose paper on the injury was published in 1814. Remarkably, Colles’ observations came almost a century before the discovery of X-rays!

Professor Abraham Colles (1773-1843)

A Regency Surgeon and Anatomist 

The story goes that Colles’ interest in anatomy was sparked in childhood by a book on the subject he found in a field after a flood partially destroyed the house of a local doctor. Young Abraham returned the book to its owner, but the physician, noticing his interest, let him keep the book. 

After studying in Dublin and Edinburgh, and a few years in London, Colles returned to Ireland and embarked on a very successful medical career. As well as his famous paper on wrist fractures, he also wrote a well-regarded anatomy and surgery treatise and papers on venereal disease. 

Professor Colles’ reputation was such that he was awarded a baronetcy by the British Government in 1839 – not a small honour! However, he declined it due to his Irish Nationalist political views, which suggests he had very strong opinions indeed. 

On Breaking Bones, Now and Then 

Colles fractures present a very distinctive “dinner fork” shape, and the displaced bone needs to be manipulated back into its correct place. In my case, the bone moved again just a few days later, and I needed a second operation to secure it with metal plates. 

Breaking a bone is a lesson in human fragility and vulnerability. It’s also a reminder of how far modern medicine has come. Had I lived two hundred years ago, my arm might have healed badly, leaving me forever maimed – able to use my limb, yes, but with a deformity for life. 

 

No wonder that, when the eldest Musgrove boy is brought home with a dislocated collarbone in Persuasion, the injury “roused the most alarming ideas” and spurs “an afternoon of distress” in which his mother has to be kept “from hysterics”. It was the kind of injury that today we consider minor, but that during the Regency had the potential to be life-changing. 

A Happy Ending

I am pleased to report that, six weeks since my second operation, I am firmly on the mend. I have gained almost all mobility, and other than a dread of icy conditions and a 2-inch scar in my wrist, I am over the worst. 

Needless to say, I am incredibly grateful to the doctors, nurses and other staff at the NHS who looked after me and put me on the road to recovery. Without them, their expertise and the means at their disposal, things might have not worked out so well. 

And if you step outside and it’s icy, please be careful! Broken wrists can be fixed, but they aren’t fun. 

 

Have you ever broken a bone? If so, how did the experience affect you?

 

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26 COMMENTS
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DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
March 12, 2021 2:36 PM

So glad you are on the mend. I have never broken a bone but I was there when my daughter broke one and it was very scary.

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[…] This article first appeared in Austen Authors, the blog for readers who need more Jane Austen. […]

Linny B
Linny B
March 5, 2021 11:39 PM

So glad to hear that you are healing from your injury. Super interesting blog about Regency medicine. Thank you for sharing and hope your recovery continues uneventfully. Stay well and safe.

Patricia Noda
Patricia Noda
March 4, 2021 10:56 AM

Slipped & cracked my left ankle last February, no surgery or cast, wore a boot for three+ months, used a knee scooter & cane, but since November been wearing a lightweight brace. Doctor said it would take awhile & he wasn’t kidding! Thankful I’m mobile but the ankle will never be the same – watching where & how I step! Only blessing, it was the left ankle so I could still drive! I felt for you at your description of your wrist – sprained both wrists rollerskating in my thirties at an after office thing – still feeling it 40 years later.

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
March 3, 2021 5:28 PM

I’ve never had a broken bone. I did take care of my Mom after she fell and broke her shoulder a couple of years ago.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
March 3, 2021 11:30 AM

I’m so glad you are healing. I certainly shall. At my age, it could be extremely bad. I am a full-time caregiver and someone depends on me. I would NOT like to live in the Regency period for many reasons but the main one is medical. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy. Oh, and watch out for that ice.

Lynn Char
Lynn Char
March 2, 2021 9:06 PM

So glad you’re recovering so well! I’ve broken ribs and toes but my most interesting break was a heal. Apparently heal breaks are rare. Doctors sometimes refer to them as burgers breaks as they mostly happen when someone falls straight down. It was definitely an annoyance lol

Michelle H
Michelle H
March 2, 2021 5:20 PM

I am so glad your wrist injury has a happy ending. You didn’t say if it was your dominant side, but no matter what gets injured, or how small, you notice all of a sudden just how much you rely on that.

The Dr. Colles article was wonderfully informative. I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole myself but it seems almost legend that Scottish doctors were more modern and knowledgeable…at least per the many Regency fiction books I’ve read. This always brings up the chicken or the egg question, though.

I experienced some broken bones in an automobile accident and recovering took a long while and wasn’t fun. But the what affected me was multi-layered. One, my husband and I learned an entirely new level of gratitude for friends, family, and the medical field. And second, (but not ALL by any stretch of the imagination,) I became very fearful of riding in a car, not to mention driving a car myself and that fear lasted way too long. It’s all good now, gratefully. I like what Mirta said about the miracle of our body’s ability to heal.

Stay away from that ice everyone. 🙂 And stay safe.

Linda A.
Linda A.
March 2, 2021 2:33 PM

I haven’t accidentally broken a bone, but I had a surgery where they cut a little window into a bone in my ankle to clean out the marrow (discolored due to a tumor that had been attached there). It was still very painful and I had the good drugs while in the hospital overnight. 😉 Thirty years later and I can still predict storms coming in. Or at least the changes in barometric pressure. It isn’t as painful as it used to be when that happens, but it definitely aches for a while.

Bronwen Chisholm
AuAu
March 2, 2021 10:54 AM

So glad to hear you are doing well. I dislike the ice as well and have taken a slow-motion fall at least once a year for the past three or four years but luckily did not break anything. That said, I broke my ankle at age 8 while running – that’s all, just running – and my toe in my 40s when I stepped off a curb. You might say I’m a bit accident prone. (My husband swears someone is going to accuse him of abusing me one day because I am normally covered in bruises.) The ankle seemed to heal quickly, but the toe, because it was up higher in the foot, took over 3 months. It still clicks strangely from time to time when I’m walking.

Mirta Ines Trupp
AuAu
March 2, 2021 8:56 AM

Glad you’re on the mend! Great post. Another reminder of our fragility, as well as the miracle of our power to heal.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
March 2, 2021 8:48 AM

Glad you are healed. I have never broken a bone knock on wood! I had stitches in my chin when I was little but that has been all.My Mom broke her hip and elbow more than a year ago. That was no fun either! Lots of therapy!

Riana Everly
AuAu
March 2, 2021 8:26 AM

So sorry about your accident, and I’m relieved to hear that you’re healing so well.
Being from Canada, I’m always cautious around ice because we all know how treacherous it can be. My two bone injuries were also caused by ice. I broke my baby finger while skating when I was a child, and a few years ago I slipped – also while skating – and broke my tail bone. There’s nothing you can do for that, but I couldn’t sit comfortably for nearly a year.
Lesson: Avoid skating.

Gianna Thomas
AuAu
March 2, 2021 7:28 AM

So glad you are on the mend, Eliza. No, I have been fortunate and have never broken a bone and try to take care not to. Thank you for sharing this information. I find it interesting that he was trained in Scotland. I need to do some research on doctors trained in England versus those trained in Scotland. Were the Scots more open-minded or simply aware of certain treatments, etc. that encouraged more research or avoiding of certain practices such as bleeding. I’ve often wondered how many people died due to their treatment by Regency doctors. Bleeding them, I would imagine would weaken them substantially and leave them open to not making it. Childbed fever was another that I’ll not comment on other than washing hands might have saved most of their patients. Ah, well! In many ways today’s medicine is better and I’m delighted that you got great treatment. My father was a general surgeon and my mother a nurse, and I even considered becoming a surgeon at one time. However, my expertise turned out to be in a different area since my bedside manner was not the best. I’m rather impertinent like Elizabeth Bennet. 🙂

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