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Biographical entry Greenhow, Thomas Michael (1792 - 1881)

MRCS Aug 5th 1814; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows; MD Durham 1855.

25 October 1881
Chapel-Allerton, UK
General surgeon


The second son of E M Greenhow, MD, for many years a popular medical practitioner in North Shields. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and served for about two years as an Assistant Surgeon in the Army. He settled in practice at Newcastle in 1817 and was soon appointed Surgeon to the Lying-in Hospital, where he acquired much obstetrical experience. Surgery was, however, his main interest, and in 1832 he was elected Surgeon to the Newcastle Infirmary and held office for some twenty-three years, during a great part of which he was Senior Surgeon. In conjunction with Sir John Fife (qv) he established the Newcastle Eye Infirmary, which did a large amount of good among the poorer classes of the North of England.

As an operator he was bold, skilled, and resourceful, and his attention to the details of after-treatment equalled his tact at the operation table. Before the days of antiseptic appliances he well knew the value of a pure atmosphere, of local cleanliness, and of simple cold-water dressing; and these he preferred to ointments and lotions in the treatment of compound fractures, of stumps after amputation, and of serious wounds of all kinds.

Greenhow's mechanical ingenuity was considerable; and he constructed various instruments and modifications of surgical appliances. He invented in 1833 a fracture-bed by which a broken leg or thigh could be slung, and which had numerous advantages in supporting the limb in a horizontal position while allowing it a degree of freedom that enabled it to accommodate itself to any movement of the pelvis. The knee, being flexed at a comfortable angle, was made a fixed point from which extension, to any desired degree was effected by means of a screw acting on a footpiece. In fractures of the thigh, by means of a groin and pelvic strap and screw extension, perfect apposition of the fractured ends was obtained, while the ease and comfort of the patient were greatly increased. This fracture-bed was used for years at the Newcastle Infirmary. Nor was this facility of invention confined to surgical apparatus, for he left behind models of machines of various kinds.

On Aug 15th, 1848, he excised a carious os calcis. This was an early instance of successful removal of this bone; and at that time he was unaware that Henry Hancock (qv) had performed the same operation two months previously. He repeated the operation several times satisfactorily. On the first occasion he removed a portion of the skin of the apex of the heel, but he subsequently avoided any such removal, and carefully refrained from encroaching with the knife on the sole of the foot.

His wonderful sense of touch and scrupulous attention to after-care greatly contributed to his success as a lithotomist. He frequently performed all the major operations of surgery, and earned a considerable reputation as an ophthalmic surgeon. As a hygienist he worked assiduously during the cholera epidemic of 1832, and published his views on the disease at some length. In 1852 he foretold a second invasion of cholera in writing to the Mayor of Newcastle, calling attention to the overcrowding, intramural burial, dirt, bad drainage, and impure air of the city. The warning was unheeded, and in a year's time Newcastle was again ravaged by the disease.

Greenhow was a pioneer sanitarian and sincere philanthropist, and was ardent to accomplish his good designs; in their pursuit he acknowledged no difficulty, knew no misgiving, and feared no evil.

He interested himself from an early period in an endeavour to establish improved education in the North of England. He read a paper before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle on April 5th, 1881, under the title, "The Expediency of Establishing in Newcastle an Academical Institution of the Nature of a College or University for the Promotion of Literature and Science, more especially amongst the Middle Classes of the Community, briefly considered". The paper was followed on June 7th of the same year by another headed, "Additional Considerations on the Expediency of Establishing an Academical Institution", etc. In the second of these papers suggestions for a full prospectus of a liberal education were drawn out, and among them is clearly set forth a full course of medical study. An endeavour was made to establish such a college on a proprietary basis, but the scheme failed. Greenhow, however, may be fairly claimed as one of the pioneers in the formation of the University of Durham; at any rate he joined the College of Medicine in connection with that University in 1855, as the first holder of the newly established Chair of Medical Ethics, which he held until he moved to Leeds in 1860.

In 1862 he presented 200 volumes of professional books to the University Library.

Leaving Newcastle on his retirement from practice in 1860, he went to live near Leeds, latterly at Newton Hall, Chapel-Allerton, where he died in his ninetieth year on Oct 25th, 1881.

He married: (1) Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Thomas Martineau of Norwich, sister of Harriet and James Martineau, and niece of the well-known surgeon of that name; and (2) Anne, second daughter of William Lupton, of Leeds. He was survived by a daughter and two sons. At the time of his death he was Consulting Surgeon to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Infirmary and Eye Infirmary.

The Remuneration of General Practitioners, 1824.
An Estimate of the True Value of Vaccination as a Security against Small-pox, 12mo, London, 1825.
Cholera, as it has recently appeared in Newcastle and Gateshead, 8vo, London, 1832.
"On Cholera." - Brit Med Jour, 1866, ii, 305.
A Description of a Sling Fracture-Bed.
"Case of Stricture of Intestines." - Edin Med Jour, 1821, xvii, 375.
"Case of the Removal of a Diseased Ovarium, Terminating Fatally on the Seventh Day after the Operation," 8vo, London, 1844; reprinted from Med-Chir Trans, 1844, 2nd ser, ix, 88.
Medical Report of the Case of Miss H Martineau, 8vo, London, 1845.
Hints on the Probable Approach of Cholera; a Letter addressed to Stephen Lowrey, 8vo, Newcastle, 1848; and a Letter addressed to J E Erichsen, Esq, FRCS, prefixed to H Martineau Greenhow's "Observations on Excision of the Os Calcis," 1858.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Embleton's History of the Medical School at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1890, 5, 10, 60, 73].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England