Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937), M.B., B.Ch. (1881)

By Prof. Pierce Grace, Professor of Surgical Science, University of Limerick

Once while on holidays in Co Clare, a surgeon was asked to see a sailor who had urinary retention from a urethral stricture. The surgeon went to the man’s cottage and got two strong men from the assembled crowd of locals to hold the man in the lithotomy position with his buttocks presenting over the half-door of the cottage. Having sharpened his penknife on a nearby stone, the surgeon plunged it into the man’s perineum producing a scream from the man, a gush of urine and gasps of astonishment from the watching crowd. Retiring to the local GP’s house, the surgeon, Sir Thomas Myles, ate a hearty breakfast; the GP’s maid commented: “sure the sight of blood gives the surgeon a great appetite”. 

Tom Myles was born in Catherine Street in Limerick 150 years ago on 20th of April 1857. After a “happy boyhood, although an idle one”, he entered Trinity College to study medicine in 1878.  Myles was an excellent athlete excelling in rowing, rugby and boxing.  He was one of the first to swim Kilkee bay where “Myles Creek” is named after him. He played in the first rugby match in Limerick in 1873 and he was an active member of Dublin University Rowing Club. In the 1880s, he met the renowned boxer John L. Sullivan and fought three rounds with him.  Sullivan said that “young Myles had greater punch than many an alleged pugilist”. While in Trinity he became an active supporter of the Home Rule movement and was a member of Parnell’s bodyguard during an election in Louth,

Myles graduated M.B., B.Ch. in 1881 and became a house surgeon in Dr Steeven’s Hospital, Dublin where he remained until 1885. On the 6th of May 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly arrived (that day) Irish Chief Secretary, and Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Under Secretary, were attacked and brutally murdered in the Phoenix Park, their assassins using surgical knives to slash the two men to death. Thomas Myles, the resident surgeon at the nearest hospital, Dr Steeven’s, was summoned to give assistance to the two victims, alas in vain.

In 1885, Myles obtained the FRCSI and became an honorary surgeon to The Charitable Infirmary, Jervis Street. He was awarded an M.D. by Trinity in 1888, the year of his marriage to Francis Ayres. In 1890, he was elected to the surgical staff of the Richmond Hospital, an institution he was associated with for the rest of his life. Myles was a terrific teacher and gave grinds to medical students from all over Dublin. When Trinity tried to stop him holding classes, he collected the college fees from the Trinity students and threatened to move them all to the College of Surgeons. Trinity relented and his classes continued. He was the first Professor of Pathology at the RCSI from 1889 to 1897 and President in 1900 and 1901. As President, he attended the memorial service for Queen Victoria in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin; the RCSI mace was draped in black for the occasion. He was awarded the Freedom of the City of Limerick in 1900 and a knighthood (Knight Batchelor) in Edward VII’s coronation honour’s list in 1902. His colleagues presented him with a carriage (!) and an illuminated address.

Sir Thomas Myles was a larger than life surgeon in Edwardian Dublin. He was a gigantic man with a commanding presence and a ready wit. He was an exponent of the advances in surgery of the day, especially Lister’s antiseptic surgery. To the astonishment of the cook in the hospital kitchen, he boiled his instruments there in a fish kettle to sterilize them (not to soften them as she thought) and quickly adopted the practice of wearing cotton gloves when operating. He was truly a general surgeon and published papers on fractures, urinary fistulae, amputation techniques and tumours of pylorus. A later doctor remembered him as a ‘good rectum man’ in recognition of his innovations in the treatment of rectal cancer.  Sir Thomas continued to practice surgery until his mid seventies. 

Myles was an excellent raconteur, an authority on French literature and had a ready supply of apt Shakespearean quotations; he cheerily greeted his blood stained surgical dressers with “Bloody ruffians, marvelously ill-favoured”. His wit (and knowledge of anatomy) let him down when addressing a Debating Society in 1902 on the subject of the recent Boer War. He said, “Was England to stand with her arms folded and her hands in her pockets?” He was much in demand as an expert witness and in his own estimation gave evidence in a thousand lawsuits.

In 1910, Sir Thomas was appointed honorary surgeon to the King in Ireland. This royal position did not stop him continuing his support for the Nationalists. When Sir Edward Carson ran guns into Larne for the Ulster Volunteers, Sir Thomas was quick to offer the services of his motor-yacht, Chotah, to the Irish Volunteers for the same purpose; he would ”show that bloody Carson that two could play his game”. Myles was a friend of Erskine Childers, having met him on holidays in Clifden. They were both keen yachtsmen. The plan was that Childers and Conor O’Brien were to use their yachts ‘Asgard’ and ‘Kelpie’ to bring guns from Germany into Ireland, Childers to Howth and O’Brien to Kilcoole. However, as O’Brien was a well-known Nationalist and possibly under surveillance, the guns were transferred to Myles’ yacht and this pillar of the establishment brought them ashore at midnight on the 1st of August, 1914. Four days later the whole of Europe was at war and Sir Thomas Myles (gunrunner!) was appointed consulting surgeon to the British Forces in Ireland with the rank of Lieut. Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Although happy to run guns for the Volunteers Myles did not approve of the 1916 Rising. During the Kilcoole episode Myles had met Éamon Martin, a captain in the Volunteers. Meeting him again in North Brunswick Street during the Rising, Sir Thomas told him he was mad, Home Rule had been granted and would surely come after the war. As the Richmond Hospital was full of British casualties Myles asked Ned Daly, Commandant at the Four Courts, not to use the hospital for rebel casualties and an improvised medical depot was set up for them in Fr Mathew Hall. When this proved inadequate and his friend Éamon Martin, whom he called ‘Adrien’, was wounded, Myles set aside a ward in the Richmond to which about 25 wounded rebels were transferred. After the Rising, the military were rounding up suspects and, fearing that ‘Adrien’ would be arrested, Sir Thomas arranged for him to be moved from the Richmond to safety. This he did by the simple expedient of arriving at the hospital in his Lieut. Colonel’s uniform, putting Martin beside him in the back seat of his chauffeur driven car and driving out of the hospital returning the salutes of the policemen on duty. The hospital records showed that Martin was recuperating from an operation for a lung abscess. Myles subsequently arranged for Martin to get a passport to travel to the United States. This required the applicant to appear in person, in the company of a police officer before a magistrate. Martin is certain that both the policeman and the magistrate were in cahoots with Myles. All he had to do was to say that he was invited by friends to California!

On the night of “Bloody Sunday” in 1920, John Healy, editor of the Irish Times and two others were trying to get to their office in D'Olier Street. The city was cordoned off by the army and they could only get as far as Merrion Square. There a squad of drunken Auxiliaries accosted them, decided that they were “Shinners” and determined to shoot them. They were pushed into a nearby house, which happened to be No. 33 and forced to stand in the hall, faces to the wall and hands in the air. The owner of the house, Sir Thomas Myles, appeared, recognised the prisoners and cheerily remarked to the Tans, “It seems to be thirsty work. How would you boys like a drink?” He brought them to the dining room and plied them with alcohol while Lady Myles phoned Dublin Castle. Half an hour later, the adjutant arrived with a strong force of Auxillaries, arrested the squad and drove Healy and his companions to work in an armoured car.

Thomas Myles remained active all his life. His passion was sailing. In the early 1930s, he was president of the RCSI boat club and while sailing his yacht “Sheila” near the Isle of Man, he was shipwrecked and lucky to escape in a small boat. Undeterred he bought another yacht in 1936 and went on a long cruise. Thomas Myles clearly influenced all who encountered him and it was said of him, “He was at home with the highest, as the lowest were at home with him.” He died in his old hospital, the Richmond, on July 14th, 1937. Every year at the University of Limerick, the Sir Thomas Myles lecture is delivered as part of the Sylvester O’Halloran Surgical Meeting in honour of this remarkable surgeon and son of Limerick.