Robert Whytt

(6 September 1714 – 15 April 1766)
College Role: 


Robert Whytt was born in Edinburgh on 6 September 1714. He is most likely the Robert Whyt that matriculated at Edinburgh University in 1729. Whytt was certainly studying medicine at Edinburgh the following year under Alexander Monro primus. In 1734, Whytt went to London and then Paris to continue his medical studies. Whytt then travelled to Leiden where he studied under Boerhaave. He obtained his MD at Rheims on 2 April 1736. On 31 October 1737, Whytt obtained an MD from St Andrews. He became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1738 and was elected fellow that same year. Whytt established a private practice in Edinburgh. Whytt was married twice, his first marriage resulting in no surviving children. His second marriage was to Louisa Balfour and the couple had fourteen children, although only six survived.

Whytt’s contemporary reputation was based on his use of lime water and soap for cases of stones in the bladder. His paper on the topic went through several editions and soap dissolved in lime water remained a popular cure through the nineteenth century. By 1739, Whytt began to question the accepted views on the nature of vital motions, shifting his focus to neurophysiology. Whytt’s theories on the central nervous system opposed contemporary teachings and drew him further into the public eye. Whytt outlined his ideas in a paper read before the Philosophical Society in Edinburgh in 1745. In 1747, he was appointed professor of the practice of medicine at Edinburgh University. Whytt was also appointed professor of the institutes of medicine. He also gave clinical lectures at the Royal Infirmary in 1760.

In 1751, Whytt published a major work, Essay on the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals. This book attracted the attention of physiologists all over Europe. Whytt’s work led to a major publication on nervous diseases in 1764. It has been suggested that this work was influential in phasing ‘the vapours’ out of vogue and replacing that terminology with ‘nervous diseases.’

Whytt was appointed first physician to King George III in Scotland, a post made specifically for him. In his lifetime, Whytt was associated with the Scottish Enlightenment and had connections with the European continent and colonial American medicine. Whytt died in Edinburgh on 15 April 1766. His collected works were published by his son in 1768.

Notable Achievements

Whytt was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 1 April 1752.

He was president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1763 to 1766.

Whytt was physician to the king in Scotland.

Key Publications

  • "On the Virtues of Lime-Water in the Cure of Stone" Edinburgh Medical Essays (1743)
  • An Equiry Into the Cause Which Promote the Circulation of Fluids in the Small Vessels of Animals (1745)
  • On the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals (1751)
  • Physiological Essays (1755)
  • Review of the Controversy Concerning the Sensibility and Moving Power of the Parts of Men and Other Animals (1761)
  • On Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric Diseases, to which are prefixed some Remarks on the Sympathy of the Nerves (1764)
  • Observations on Dropsy of the Brain (1768)


Alexander Wood

(10 December 1817 – 26 February 1884)
College Role: 


Alexander Wood was born on 10 December 1817 in Fife, the son of a physician. His family moved to Edinburgh’s New Town in 1821 where Wood received his early education at private schools before matriculating at Edinburgh University in 1832 where he studied arts and medicine. He graduated MD in 1839 and established his private practice in New Town. He was appointed physician to the Stockbridge and Royal Public dispensaries. On 15 June 1842 he married Rebecca Massey. Wood began lecturing at the extramural medical school in 1841, although he failed later attempts at appointments at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Wood’s main contribution to medicine was discovering the technique of administering drugs using hypodermic syringe. Wood was inspired by James Young Simpson’s experiments on anaesthesia and became concerned with relieved localized pain. In 1853, Wood used a syringe and treated a case of neuralgia by injecting morphia in the area of discomfort.

By a remarkable coincidence, Charles Gabriel Pravaz (1791–1853), a French surgeon who had neither met nor been in contact with Wood, reported his invention in the same year, 1853, and then died soon afterwards. Prior to both men’s invention of the fine bore needle, others had used larger, cruder needles attached to tubing. The importance of Wood’s and Pravaz’s work was that needles could now be fixed onto syringes and smaller, measured doses injected, but years were to pass before the increased danger of infection was understood and sterilisation developed.

Wood fully embraced mid-nineteenth century developments in medical ideals surrounding a unified, well-educated and duly licensed body of practitioners. He promoted the scientific nature of contemporary medicine and attacked unorthodox forms of treatment, most notably homeopathy. He also played a prominent role in Scottish medical politics through his active participation with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Wood led the negotiations for a new College Charter. The college at this time was extremely active in all areas of medical politics and reforming medical legislation. Wood played an important role in persuading the college to admit non-graduates into its licensing examinations. Wood campaigned for legislation on lunacy, pharmacy, the registration of births and marriages, and sanitary reform. He also argued strongly for the rights of the Edinburgh Extramural School of Medicine.

From 1846 to 1852 Wood was elected to the Edinburgh police commissioners as well as serving on other various committees. He chaired the acting committee of the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, a charity that provided food and work for the unemployed. Wood was also involved in debates over the poor law in Scotland. His public work was fuelled by a strong personal faith. In 1843 he joined the Free Church of Scotland. Illness forced him to retire in 1873. Wood died in his home on 26 February 1884 after a short illness.

Notable Achievements

Wood was President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1858 to 1861, after serving as secretary for six years.

Key Publications

•    Homeopathy Unmasked (1844)
•    A Sequel to Homeopathy Unmasked (1845)
•    Rational Medicine (1849)
•    What is Mesmerism (1851)
•    ‘A new method of treating neuralgia by subcutaneous injection’, published in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal (1855)
•    Vaccination as it is, was, and Ought to be (1860)

William Wright

(March 1735 – 19 September 1819)
College Role: 


William Wright was born in March 1735 in Perthshire to a humble family, although his father’s profession is unknown. After early schooling in Crieff, Wright was apprenticed to a local surgeon in Falkirk. In 1756, Wright attended medical lectures at Edinburgh University, but did not obtain a degree. In 1757, he sailed to Greenland as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler. In January 1758, Wright presented himself for examination at the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh and was subsequently appointed surgeon’s mate on a Royal Navy warship. Late in 1759 he was promoted to surgeon’s first mate. He remained in service in the West Indies until the end of the Seven Years’ War. In this period, Wright was exposed to the ravages of diseases on non-immune British troops as well as slavery within the island colonies of the empire. Wright returned to Britain in September 1763.

Wright improved his qualifications, obtaining the qualification of surgeon and receiving his MD in absentia from St Andrews. Wright left for Jamaica in 1764, hoping to establish a practice there, but there were already too many doctors. He was forced to become an assistant for Dr Gray on a sugar plantation 150 miles from Kingston, with whom he invested his savings into slaves. An old friend from his time at Edinburgh University offered him a partnership in a medical practice at Hampden estate in Jamaica. This practice was responsible for the medical care of 1200 slaves and the local free population. In this period, Wright began his study of botany and became a collector of Jamaican plants. In 1774 he was appointed Surgeon-General of Jamaica.

Wright left Jamaica in 1777 for London where he furthered his knowledge of obstetrics, botany and medicine. Wright returned briefly to Edinburgh, attending lectures at Edinburgh University, before embarking again on his travels in 1779. By this point, Wright was known as a significant contributor to botanical knowledge and had an important role as collector and naturalist. Wright accepted the position of regimental surgeon to the Jamaican regiment, although he was captured and made a prisoner of war in Spain. Wright escaped and returned to England in 1780 before returning again to Jamaica, where he would stay from 1782 to 1785.

Wright returned to Britain in September 1785 and settled down in Edinburgh, having secured the sale of his property in Jamaica. Wright was ready to immerse himself in the scientific societies and gentlemanly culture of the burgeoning mercantile city. Wright was politically conservative and, as a slave owner, opposed the abolition of the slave trade.

Wright became physician to the army and director of military hospitals in Barbados from 1796 to 1798. This position was offered to him because of his expertise in tropical diseases and earned him the recognition he desired. Wright was now an important figure reaching the peak of his professional success. Wright continued his participation in botanical collecting. His Caribbean plant specimens had become part of the collection of many important British naturalists. Wright never married, but adopted his nephew whom he trained in the medical profession. He died in Edinburgh on 19 September 1819.

Notable Achievements

In 1778, Wright was elected fellow of the Royal Society of London.

In 1788, Wright was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, member of the Society of Natural History of Edinburgh, and a member of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh.

In 1801, Wright was elected to the Royal Medical Society.

Wright served as the president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1801 to 1803.

In 1807, Wright became an associate of the Linnean Society,

In 1808, Wright became a founder member and vice-president of the Wernerian Natural History Society.

Key Publications

Wright’s writings consist of a number of individual papers.

  • Memoir of the Late William Wright (1828) includes eighteen papers written by Wright on botany and tropical medicine.