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Biographical entry Sinclair, Thomas (1857 - 1940)

CB 1917; MRCS 18 April 1882; FRCS 10 June 1886; LM MCh MD RUI 1881; MP.

17 December 1857
25 November 1940
General surgeon


Born in Belfast on 17 December 1857, the third child and second son of Samuel Sinclair, flax-merchant, and Isabella McMorran, his wife. Thomas Sinclair was educated privately and intended to go into business. In 1877 he entered Queen's College, then a constituent college of the Royal University of Ireland, in which he graduated with first-class honours in 1881, winning the Malcolm exhibition in 1880 and a gold medal in 1881. He then worked at the London Hospital, in Vienna, and in Berlin, acted for a time as demonstrator of anatomy at Queen's College, Belfast, and took the Membership in 1882 and the Fellowship in 1886. His first hospital appointment in Belfast was on the surgical staff of the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women, where he was ultimately consulting surgeon; in 1885 he was elected assistant surgeon to the Royal (afterwards Royal Victoria) Hospital, becoming surgeon in 1898 and consulting surgeon in 1923. He was also consulting surgeon to the Forster Green Hospital, the Co Antrim Infirmary, and the Lisburn and Coleraine Cottage Hospitals.

In 1886, at the age of 29; he succeeded Alexander Gordon as professor of surgery at Queen's College. The election of the youngest candidate for the vacancy was generally attributed to the influence of Peter Redfern, FRCS, professor of anatomy and physiology, and Sinclair fully justified the choice. In the class-room and the operating theatre he quickly established himself as a court of ultimate appeal in all difficulties. He held the chair for thirty-seven years, retiring at the age limit in 1923, and is said to have taught more than 2,000 students. When he was senior surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital, every member of the staff but one had been taught by him. He was a born teacher, and as an operator and clinician a master. He combined great dexterity with sound knowledge and a logical mind. He was meticulous in inculcating thoroughness both in clinical examination and in post-operative care. Though never robust, between 1886 and 1914 he was a busy and regular lecturer and examiner in addition to his large practice. Only for writing did he find little time. For recreation he hunted each Saturday in the season, and also fished and played golf. Skating, at which he was expert, could alone lure him from giving his morning lecture.

During the war he was consulting surgeon to the 4th Army, under Rawlinson in France and later under Allenby in Egypt, with the rank of colonel, AMS, having been commissioned on 15 November 1915. He received the CB in 1917. While in France he examined the body of Richtofen, the German air "ace", who was brought down behind the British lines and was thought by some to have been shot from the ground as he fell. Sinclair established that he had been shot in combat in the air by Captain A R Brown, an Australian pilot.

After the war Sinclair returned to Belfast and occupied himself particularly with the affairs of the Queen's University, as Queen's College had become in 1908. He was registrar from 1919 to 1931, an ex officio member of the University Senate from 1919 as registrar and from 1931 as one of the pro-chancellors, his colleague in this office being the Rt Hon James Andrews, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. He was a generous contributor to the University, as well as to the hospitals with which he was connected, and in 1926 founded the Sinclair medal, to be competed for each year by the members of the surgical class in the University. He represented the University on the General Medical Council from 1919 till 1927, when he became a Crown nominee upon it, and was also a member of the Dental Board. He was for many years a senator of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, and in 1923 he was elected unopposed as MP for the University in the Imperial Parliament, in succession to Sir William Whitla, MD. He held the seat for seventeen years, retiring only two months before his death, and was returned unopposed at four general elections. He died at Belfast after several months' illness on 25 November 1940.

Sinclair never married but lived with a younger sister, who survived him, at 22 University Square, Belfast. Having grown up in a large family, he took a keen interest in the careers of his nephews, three of whom were prominent in Belfast public life at the time of his death: Major Maynard Sinclair, a member of the provincial Parliament, Alan Sinclair, professor of Greek in the University, and S R Sinclair, DOMS, RCPS, on the staff of the Ophthalmic Hospital. Sinclair was slightly above middle height, speaking in a soft voice with a slight North Irish accent, and was a Presbyterian. He was always well-dressed, dignified and a little stiff in manner, but with a very friendly disposition; and he took an active part in all medical gatherings. He was secretary of the section of physiology and pathology at the Belfast meeting of the BMA in 1884, and president of the section of surgery at the Belfast meeting in 1909. He was president of the Ulster Medical Society in 1895-96, and at one time of the Queen's University Club in London.

He rarely came to London until the meeting of the International Medical Congress in 1913, when he acted as a secretary of the section of surgery, his colleagues being Raymond Johnson, surgeon to University College Hospital, and D'Arcy Power of St Bartholomew's. He then made many staunch friends and visited the metropolis frequently. A great teacher and a wise administrator, he held a unique place in the professional and academic life of Belfast for more than a quarter of a century. A portrait, presented in his honour in 1931, hangs in the Great Hall of the University.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 26 November 1940, p 7e; Lancet, 1940, 2, 765, with portrait; Brit med J 1940, 2, 811, with portrait; Ulster med J 1941, 10, 61-64; information given by his niece, Mrs Isabel R Smith].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England