26th February 1884

Hypodermic syringe inventor dies in Edinburgh

Doctor Alexander Wood was born in Fife and moved to Edinburgh. There, he studied medicine and, following his graduation and several years spent working in the medical profession, returned to lecture at the University of Edinburgh.

However, his greatest contribution to the advancement of medical treatment was not lecturing the next generation of doctors, but the development, in 1853, of the hollow, subcutaneous needle, capable of directly injecting medicine beneath the skin. The term hypodermic has since been popularised in place of subcutaneous and remains in use today.

More accurate pain relief

The idea, as Wood saw it, was that by directing the treatment to a specific location, pain relief could be delivered at the place where it was needed. Previously, the only option had been to take a whole-body approach to treatment, as remains the case when taking an oral painkiller. Direct treatment could, theoretically, allow a smaller amount of any drug to be administered, reducing the risk of damage to other parts of the body.

Following his death, Thomas Brown wrote a biography of Wood’s life (called Alexander Wood: A Sketch of his Life and Work), in which he devoted one complete chapter to the development of the hypodermic syringe. Wood’s inspiration had been the arrival of patients registered at his surgery, who could no longer obtain adequate pain relief from orally administered opiates. 

Glass syringe

“Taking as his model the sting of the bee, he had constructed a small [glass] syringe, to which was attached a fine perforated needle point,” Brown informed his readers. “This needle he passed under the skin, and through it he injected a small dose of morphia… in this manner all derangement of stomach and liver was avoided, and immediate absorption of the morphia into the blood-stream took place.”

A writer in the Dublin Medical Press of 21 July 1858 explained how “during the last year I have frequently employed Dr Alexander Wood’s ingenious plan of treating neuralgia by the local injection of morphia”. In the process, it occurred to the author that the real genius of the system was that it allowed treatment to be given even if the subject was unable to swallow, as might happen in a case of poisoning, thus increasing their chances of survival.

Wood died in Edinburgh in 1884 and is buried at Dean Cemetery.



Other events that occured in February

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.