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Biographical entry Tomes, Sir John (1815 - 1895)

Knight Bachelor 1886; MRCS March 21st 1839; FRCS (by election) April 12th 1883; FRS 1850.

21 March 1815
29 July 1895
Dental surgeon


Born on March 21st, 1815, the eldest son of John Tomes and of Sarah his wife, daughter of William Bayliss, of Welford in Gloucestershire. His father's family had lived at Marston Sicca or Long Marston since the reign of Richard II. The house is mentioned in "Boscobel Tracts". It sheltered Charles II after the Battle of Worcester, when Jane Lane, a connection of the Tomes family, assisted in his escape.

John Tomes was born in the neighbouring village of Weston-on-Avon and was articled in 1831 to Thomas Farley Smith, a surgeon at Evesham. He entered the medical schools of King's College and the Middlesex Hospital, then temporarily united, in 1836, and was House Surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital, 1839-1840. Whilst he was House Surgeon he invented the tooth-forceps with jaws accurately adapted to forms of the necks of the teeth, the first of the modern type to supplant the 'key' instrument which had been in ordinary use. During this period, too, he was engaged in the histology of bone and teeth, for he fed a nest of young sparrows and a sucking-pig on madder and examined their bones microscopically. This work brought him to the knowledge of Sir Thomas Watson (1792-1882) and James Moncrieff Arnott (qv), who advised him to adopt dental surgery as his profession. He began to practise at 41 Mortimer Street (now Cavendish Place) in 1840, and on March 3rd, 1845, he took out a patent for a machine to copy in ivory irregular curved surfaces, and for this he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts.

In 1845 he delivered a course of lectures at the Middlesex Hospital which marked a new era in dentistry. He was also much occupied with the question of general anaesthesia, and in 1847 administered ether at the Middlesex Hospital for the extraction of teeth as well as for operations in general surgery.

He contributed a series of important papers on 'Bone' and on dental tissues to the Philosophical Transactions between 1849 and 1856. The most valuable of these is, perhaps, that upon the structure of dentine, in which he demonstrated the protoplasmic prolongations from the odontoblasts which have since been known as 'Tomes' fibrils'. He was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society on June 6th, 1850.

Tomes early took a deep interest in the welfare of the dental profession, and was one of those who in 1843 and again in 1855 unsuccessfully approached the Royal College of Surgeons with a view to a closer alliance between English surgeons and English dentists. He was more successful in 1858, when the College agreed to give a Licence in Dental Surgery. He was also one of the chief founders of the Odontological Society in 1856 and of the Dental Hospital in 1858. He gave the first systematic clinical demonstration in dental surgery at this hospital. In 1878 he was ably assisted by James Smith Turner in obtaining the Dentists Act to ensure the registration, and render compulsory the education, of those who proposed to adopt dentistry as a profession.

After carrying on a large and lucrative practice Tomes retired in 1876 to Upwood Gorse, Caterham, Surrey. He was twice President of the Odontological Society, and in 1877 he was elected Chairman of the Dental Reform Committee. He received the honour of knighthood on May 28th, 1886.

He married on Feb 15th, 1844, Jane, daughter of Robert Sibley, of Great Ormond Street, London, an architect. He had by her one surviving son, Sir Charles Sissmore Tomes (qv), and lived with her to celebrate his golden wedding. He died on July 29th, 1895, and was buried at St Mary's, Upper Caterham.

A portrait of Tomes painted in 1884 by Carlisle Macartney hangs in the rooms of the Royal Society of Medicine. A Triennial Prize for researches in the field of dental science in its widest acceptation is awarded by the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It was founded in 1894 by members of the dental profession in memory of Sir John Tomes and his services in promoting the study of dental surgery and the status of its practitioners. The first award for 1894-1896 was made to his son, Charles Sissmore Tomes.

Like his contemporary and coadjutor, Sir Edwin Saunders (qv), Tomes began to practise dentistry when it was a trade and left it a well-equipped profession. The change was in great part due to the personal exertions of the two fellow-workers; but Tomes did more than this, for he showed that a dentist was capable of the highest kind of scientific work - original investigation - and this faculty he transmitted to his son. His mind was at the same time eminently practical and be possessed considerable mechanical ingenuity.

A Course of Lectures on Dental Physiology and Surgery, 8vo, London, 1848. The lectures are a classic. They were delivered at the Middlesex Hospital, but Tomes made the significant entry in his diary: "I am resolved never to deliver any more lectures unless I have a class of at least six."
A System of Dental Surgery, 12mo, London, 1859; 3rd ed, revised and enlarged by his son, C S Tomes, 12mo, London, 1887. Translated into French, Paris, 1873.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1895, ii, 352. Brit Med Jour, 1895, ii, 396, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England