Since its foundation in 1726, the Edinburgh University Medical School has never lacked for colourful personalities but none have been more extrovert or conducted themselves with greater panache than Alexis Thomson who succeeded John Chiene (q.v.) as Professor of Systematic Surgery in 1909.
Henry Alexis Thomson, one of the seven sons of a prosperous Edinburgh businessman, was born in Edinburgh in 1863. He was educated at the Royal High School and at Edinburgh University where he had a distinguished academic career and from which he graduate MBCM with honours in 1885. Before entering the University he spent two years in Germany and France as a result of which he became fluent in both French and German.
A famous Edinburgh department store, Patrick Thomson Limited, belonged to his family and, in later years as Professor Surgery, Alexis could always raise a laugh from his students by referring with feigned contempt to “that damned rag shop on the North Bridge” or to “my brother, the haberdasher”. The students’ amusement was made all the more piquant by their belief that Alexis had been denied a Knighthood because of his connection with “trade”.
His surgical career began with his appointment in 1887 as Clinical Tutor and private assistant to Mr John Duncan (PRCSEd 1889 - 1891) and it was at this time that, in association with his great friend, Harold Stiles (q.v.) he conducted a highly successful undergraduate course in anatomy and pathology which attracted a large number of students.
He became a Fellow of the College in 1888 and in the following year the University awarded him its MD degree with the Gold Medal for his thesis. After spending some time in the University department of Pathology he was, in 1892, appointed Assistant Surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and two years later, Surgeon to the newly opened Deaconess Hospital.
Over the next 15 years his reputation as a clinician, as an operator and as a teacher grew rapidly and by the turn of the century he had become one of the best known surgeons in Scotland. He travelled frequently to the great centres of academic surgery in France, Germany and Austria and established close friendships with many European surgeons.
His publications were many and varied and together with his fame as an operator attracted numerous foreign visitors to Edinburgh, all of whom were impressed by his technical skill and none more that Dr W J Mayo who, in 1907, wrote “I had the pleasure of seeing Mr Alexis Thomson do considerable work. He is a brilliant operator and makes rapid knife dissections with exquisite delicacy ….”.
When Professor Chiene retired, Alexis Thomson was his obvious successor and his appointment to the Chair of Systematic Surgery was universally acclaimed.
As Professor he was soon recognised as the most dynamic personality in the Edinburgh Medical Faculty and his dashing, flamboyant manner appealed greatly to the students of the pre 1914 period for whom he was without equal as a lecturer and as a clinical teacher.
Every time that he had an audience, whether in the classroom, in the operating theatre or in the wards, he put on a performance and it was usually a superb one.
His brisk repartee and caustic wit were legendary and his students reacted joyously to his verbal sallies, many of which, it must be admitted, were of a somewhat Rabelaisian flavour. He was indeed a showman of the first order; a tall, handsome man always immaculately dressed who combined the grand manner with the common track and who had been naturally endowed with an abundance of that elusive and indefinable quality which is called “style”.
All this was, however, only one side of him and behind the flourish and swagger was a razor keen intellect linked with supreme practical ability. Alexis was, indeed, a master surgeon, in many respects far in advance of his times who was held in the highest esteem by his surgical peers worldwide.
Alexis Thomson and Harold Stiles were among the first European surgeons to appreciate the rapid development of surgical science in the United States and both made several trips to the great American teaching centres long before this became a fashionable thing to do. They were, consequently, held in high regard by their American colleagues and when the American Society of Surgeons visited the major surgical centres of Europe in 1912, they invited both Thomson and Stiles to accompany them on their tour.
In 1904 Alexis and his Royal Infirmary colleague, Alexander Miles (q.v.), published their famous “Manual of Surgery” and although the two authors could scarcely have been more different in temperament, this was an instant success. It ran to several editions and was probably the most popular English language surgical textbook of its day.
Although aged 50 at the outbreak of World War I, Alexis volunteered for military service and in 1915 was appointed Consulting Surgeon to the British Third Army in France. About 18 months later his health broke down and he had to be invalided home but his convalescence was prolonged and his old friend, Harold Stiles, felt that he never fully recovered either his physical energy or his intellectual vigour.
In recognition of his distinguished Army service, he was appointed Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG).
He retired from the Chair of Systematic Surgery in 1923 and was due to take office as President of the College later that year, but was prevented from doing so by a stroke which left him partially paralysed. Such a man as Alexis, who had always lived life to the full, could not reconcile himself to the prospect of prolonged invalidism and in 1924, when on holiday in southern Spain, he ended his own life in the manner of an ancient Roman.
Alexis Thomson was undoubtedly a great surgeon and one of the most remarkable “characters” in the long history of the Edinburgh medical school, to the fame of which he made his own distinctive contribution. He worked and played hard and is warmly remembered as the central figure of many tales and anecdotes, by no means all of them apocryphal, which have passed down from one generation to another over the 80 years since his death.
The handsome dinner service presented to the College by his widow is a fitting memorial to a most distinguished Fellow who, throughout his life, was the soul of conviviality.