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Alexander Wood (surgeon)

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Alexander Wood (surgeon)

Alexander Wood (1725 – 1807) was an Edinburgh surgeon, active in the convivial clubs which flourished in Enlightenment Edinburgh and was the founder of two of these. Because of his lean, lanky physique he was better known to his contemporaries and to posterity as “Lang Sandy” Wood. His treatment of and friendship with the poet Robert Burns contributed to the local celebrity status which he attained.

In this portrait Wood is depicted by John Kay with an umbrella. He was the first person in Edinburgh to use one. Kay's portraits.1842
In this caricature of Wood with his cane, Kay has attempted to capture his kindly demeanour. Kay's Portraits. 1842

Professional Life

The son of Thomas Wood, a farmer on the outskirts of Edinburgh, little is known of Alexander Wood's schooling or apprenticeship. He became a Freeman of the Incorporation of Surgeons in 1756 [1] and was appointed to the staff of the new Royal Infirmary. Elected Deacon (President) of the Incorporation of Surgeons in 1762 he held office for two years.[2] He was in surgical practice with the surgeons John Rattray (1707 – 1771) and Charles Congleton.[3] Yet he made no known contributions to the advancement of surgical knowledge. Two of his pupils held him in high regard. John Bell (1763 – 1820) the surgeon dedicated his book Anatomy of the Human Body to Wood [4] while Sir Alexander Morison (1779 – 1866) the pioneer of psychiatric medicine composed a poem in his honour.

Personal and social life

Wood married Veronica Chalmers and one of their sons, Sir Alexander Wood, became Chief Secretary for the government at Malta.[3] Surgery was a popular choice of family career: Lang Sandy’s brother Thomas Wood (1747-1821) and son George Wood were also Edinburgh surgeons. His grand-nephew Dr. Alexander Wood (1817–1884) introduced hypodermic medication into medical practice.

Lang Sandy became a well known and popular figure in Edinburgh with a reputation for a warm and generous nature. He was a member of many dining clubs and convivial societies which characterised the Enlightenment in Edinburgh and he founded two such clubs which continue into the 21st century - the Aesculapian Club (1773)[5] and the Harveian Society (1778).[6]

Noted too for personal idiosyncrasy, he was often accompanied around Edinburgh by two pets, a tame sheep and a raven which perched on his shoulder. He was said to be the first person in Edinburgh to own and use an umbrella which he did from 1780.[7]

Lord Byron included a couplet about him in the 5th canto of his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in which he describes contemporary Edinburgh and some of its characters. It was published in Blackwood's Magazine in May 1818:[8]

"Oh! for an hour of him who knew no feud, The octogenarian chief, the kind old Sandy Wood!"

Friendship with Robert Burns

After he treated a leg injury sustained by the poet Robert Burns on his visit to Edinburgh in 1787, Burns’s close friend Agnes Maclehose (Clarinda), herself a surgeon’s daughter, wrote to Burns “I am glad to hear Mr Wood attends you. He is a good soul and a safe surgeon. Do as he bids and I trust your leg will soon be quite well”.[9] Wood and Burns became friends with Burns referring to “My very worthy respected friend, Mr Alexander Wood” and to “one of the noblest men in God’s world - Alexander Wood, Surgeon”.[10]

Wood died aged 82 on May 12, 1807.


  1. ^ RCSEd list of Fellows. Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
  2. ^ Macintyre IMC and MacLaren IF (eds) Surgeons Lives. Edinburgh.Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. (2005) ISBN 0950362093
  3. ^ a b  
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Chalmers, John (ed.), Andrew Duncan Senior: Physician of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, (2010) ISBN 978-1-905267-30-9
  7. ^ Kay, John; Paton, Hugh. Kay’s Portraits : A series of original portraits and caricature etchings by the late John Kay, with biographical sketches and illustrative Anecdotes. Edinburgh; Hugh Paton: 1842. ISBN 9781841586571
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^

Further reading

Carlyle, E.I. Alexander Wood (1725-1807).Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62,_Alexander_%281725-1807%29_%28DNB00%29

Kay, John; Paton, Hugh. Kay’s Portraits : A series of original portraits and caricature etchings by the late John Kay, with biographical sketches and illustrative Anecdotes. Edinburgh; Hugh Paton: 1842. ISBN 9781841586571

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