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Biographical entry Thomson, Henry Alexis (1863 - 1924)

CMG; MRCS July 23rd 1885; FRCS (elected as a Member of twenty years' standing) April 8th 1920; MB CM Edin (Hons) 1885; MD (Gold Medal) 1889; FRCS Edin 1888.

5 March 1924
General surgeon


Born in Edinburgh, one of the seven sons of an eminent Edinburgh business man and a highly cultivated mother. He was educated at the Royal High School, and, before becoming a medical student, spent two years at the Realschule of Hanover and in France, where he became well acquainted with French and German. His career at the University of Edinburgh was distinguished. He gained medals in surgery, both systematic and clinical, and graduated with honours at the age of 22. He then acted as House Surgeon in the Sick Children's Hospital and in the Royal Infirmary under John Duncan, for whom he afterwards acted as clinical tutor and private assistant.

After being a few months in general practice he commenced practice as a surgeon in 1887. In conjunction with Harold Stiles he at this time ran a successful coaching class in anatomy and pathology for the second professional examination at Edinburgh. He was one of the earliest workers in the College of Physicians' laboratory when this was in Lauriston Lane, and it was here that he did a great deal of work for his MD thesis on "Tuberculosis of Bones and Joints". For this work he received a gold medal five years after graduation and was appointed joint holder of the Freeland-Barbour Fellowship by the Royal College of Physicians. He was for a time Assistant to Professor Greenfield, and under him laid the foundation of his lifelong interest in surgical pathology. About the year 1888 he began to lecture on surgery at Minto House, where he was associated with Johnson Symington (qv). In 1892 he was appointed Assistant Surgeon to the Royal Infirmary, and in 1894 Surgeon to the newly-opened Deaconess Hospital.

His reputation as a teacher and operator had so grown during the years of his work at the Royal Infirmary that he stood in the front rank of Edinburgh surgeons when, in 1909, Professor J Chiene retired from the Chair of Systematic Surgery at the University of Edinburgh. The office had been rendered illustrious by the names of Spence and Chiene, and it was universally felt that Alexis Thomson would carry on their tradition. He occupied the Chair of Surgery for a period of fourteen years, till the spring of 1923.

He illustrated his lectures with demonstrations, and was one of the pioneers of the epidiascope and was probably the first British surgeon to employ the cinematograph as a means of education. Films of exceptional cases and operations were made under his supervision. His lectures seemed to gain in force as the years advanced, and perhaps his best course was his last in 1922-1923, when over 300 students were present. He was a brilliant and successful operator. He possessed wide knowledge and sound judgement, which were most in evidence in difficult cases. His clinics were crowded, and his practice was one of the largest in Scotland. He travelled widely in order to study the methods of medical schools in England, on the Continent, and in the United States. He was recognized in America as a representative European surgeon, and was one of the first to value the immense progress in organization and technique which was developing in America, and did much by his practice and teaching to incorporate the improvements and methods which he had observed there, and to introduce them into the Edinburgh Medical School.

On the outbreak of the Great War Thomson joined the staff of the 2nd Scottish General Hospital at Craigleith with the rank of Captain. Early in 1915, after obtaining leave of absence from his Chair, he proceeded to France, spent a short time at a Base Hospital, and then rendered eminent service as Consulting Surgeon to the Third Army of the British Expeditionary Force, with a commission as Colonel, AMS. In something over a year he was invalided home with trench fever, which doubtless undermined his health. He gave his last course of lectures in 1928, and on his last appearance his students made a touching farewell demonstration and presented him with a testimonial. His active career as a surgeon ceased in March, 1928, and he retired from his Chair in October.

He was a Member of Council of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, frequently representing the College at Medical Congresses. But for ill health he would have been President in 1923, the year of his retirement. At the time of his death he was Consulting Surgeon to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and to the Deaconess Hospital. He had practised at 39 Drumsheugh Gardens. A few weeks before his death he went to the South of Spain, where he had before spent Easter holidays. He died at Alge├žiras on March 5th, 1924, and was buried at Gibraltar. He was survived by his widow, Ethel K, daughter of G Grey Wotherspoon, of Hillside, Aberdour.

His portrait accompanies his biography in the British Medical Journal. Thomson made valuable contributions to medical literature. Much of his reputation is based on these, and they are discussed at some length in his British Medical Journal biography, where also will be found an admirable appreciation of the man and his importance in the Edinburgh Medical School by his close friend, Sir Harold Stiles.

Manual of Surgery (with ALEXANDER MILES), 2 vols, 8vo, illustrated, Edinburgh and London, 1906; 6th ed, 3 vols, 1921-2 - which was the text-book of its time.
Operative Surgery, 3rd ed, 8vo, illustrated; London, 1920. A companion volume to the Manual.
On Tuberculosis of Bones and Joints, 8vo, 10 plates, Edinburgh, 1890.
On Neuroma and Neuro-fibromatosis, 4to, 20 plates, Edinburgh, 1900. A notable work which added greatly to his reputation and was translated into French.
"Surgical Interference in Traumatic Rupture of the Abdominal Viscera." - Edin Hosp Rep, 1895, iii, 583.
"Operative Interference in Perforating Ulcer of the Stomach." - Lancet, 1896, ii, 11.
"Steel Pegs in Surgery of the Bones and Joints." - Internat Clinics, 1899.
"Differentiation of Partial from Total Transverse Lesions of the Spinal Cord." - Edin Med Jour, 1907, xxii, 26.
"Fibromatosis of the Stomach and its Relationship to Ulcer and to Cancer" (with J M Graham) - Ibid, 1913, NS xi, 7.
"Diagnosis and Treatment of Chronic Ulcer of the Stomach and Duodenum." - Brit Med Jour, 1909, i, 648.
Thomson was joint-editor from 1902-1909 of the Edin Med Jour, frequently contributing valuable papers to it and to the Edin Med-Chir Soc meetings.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1924, i, 572. Brit Med Jour, 1924, i, 499. Edin Med Jour, 1924, NS xxxi, 272, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England