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!
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?