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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Alexander Wood, Surgeon


The pencil of Kay has done justice to the memory of this eminent surgeon and very excellent man, by the production of two striking portraits of him. The first possesses the real octogenarian demeanour of the "kind old Sandy Wood," who is represented as passing along the North Bridge with an umbrella under his arm, in allusion to the circumstance of his having been the first person in Edinburgh who made use of that very convenient article—now so common.

Mr. Wood's father was the youngest sou of Mr. Wood of Warriston, in Midlothian—now the property of the Earl of Morton. He long possessed a house and grounds, situated immediately to the north of Queen Street, and rented from the Town of Edinburgh, where Mr. Wood was born in the year 1725.

Mr. Wood completed his medical education in Edinburgh; and having taken out his diploma, he established himself at Musselburgh, where he practised successfully for some time. He then removed to Edinburgh, became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and entered into a copartnership with Messrs. Rattray and Congalton, men of eminence in their day, and to whose practice he subsequently succeeded.

Being gifted with strong natural talents, great tact, and an activity of mind and person rarely surpassed ; and possessing a perfect simplicity and openness of character, with a singularly benevolent disposition and peculiar tenderness of heart, Mr. Wood soon rose to high professional celebrity.

Not long after connecting himself with Messrs. Rattray and Congalton, he married Miss Veronica Chalmers, second daughter of George Chalmers, Esq., W.S., an individual of great worth and respectability. In reference to this connection a very pleasing anecdote is told. Mr. Wood, on obtaining the consent of the lady, having proposed himself to Mr. Chalmers as his son-in-law, that gentleman addressed him thus:—"Sandy, I have not the smallest objection to you; but I myself am not rich, and should, therefore, like to know how you are to support a wife and family?" Mr. Wood put his hand into his pocket, drew out his lancet-case, and said, "I have nothing but this, sir, and a de-tu-mination to use my best endeavours to succeed in my profession." His future father-in-law was so struck with this straightforward and honest reply, that he immediately exclaimed, "Vera is yours! "

Notwithstanding a certain bluntness and decision of manner, which was liable to be occasionally misunderstood, and which gave rise to some, curious scenes and incidents in the course of his professional practice, Mr. Wood's philanthropy and kindness were proverbial; and his unremitting attention to the distresses of the indigent sick, whom he continued to visit in their wretched dwellings, after he had given up general practice, was a noble trait in his character. What has been said of the illustrious Boerhaave may be equally applied to him— "that he considered the poor as his best patients, and that he never neglected them." To his other qualities he added an enthusiastic warmth and steadiness in his friendships, with a total freedom from selfishness—and, in his social relations, that kind and playful manner, which softened asperities, and rendered available all the best sympathies and affections of which human is susceptible; and being of a most convivial disposition, his company was courted by all ranks. In fact, few men have ever been so universally beloved as Mr. Wood, and proportionally numerous are the testimonies to his worth.

During the long course of his useful career, he enjoyed the unanimous good will and approbation of his brethren, who, without anv jealous feelings, allowed him the palm of superiority he deservedly merited—a tribute due not only to the soundness of his practical knowledge, and the dexterity of his skill in operating (which tended much to raise the reputation of the surgical department of the Eoyal Infirmary), but to his personal character.

In a fragment of a fifth Canto of " Childe Harold," which appeared in Blackwood's Magazine for May, 1818, he is thus alluded to:—

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

and, in a note on this stanza, he is spoken of as Sandy Wood—one of the delightful reminiscences of Old Edinburgh—who was at least eighty years of age, when in high repute as a medical man he could yet divert himself in his walks with the "Hie Schuil laddies," or bestow the relics of his universal benevolence in feeding a goat or a raven.

He is also alluded to in a spirit of tenderness and affection by Sir Walter Scott, in a prophecy put into the mouth of Meg Merrilees: "A gathering together of the powerful shall be made amidst the caves of the inhabitants of Dunedin. Sandy is at his rest. They shall beset his goat; they shall profane his raven; they shall blacken the buildings of the Infirmary; her secrets shall be examined; a new goat shall bleat, until they have measured out and run over fifty-four feet nine inches and a half." And the late celebrated John Bell, who had been a pupil of Mr. Wrood, dedicates to him his first volume of "Anatomy," in a concise but elegant tribute to his skill, his disinterested conduct, and public and private virtues.

Mr. Wood's character is farther commemorated by the late Sir Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck, in these lines—part of an epitaph composed by him on Mr. Wood:—

"But cold the heart that feels no genial glow, Pondering on him whose ashes sleep below: Whose vivid mind, with grasping power, could reach Truths that the plodding schools can never teach. Who scorned, in honesty, the specious wiles Of dull importance, or of fawning smiles: Who scouted feelings frittered and refined, But had an ample heart for all mankind."

The following anecdote is a proof of Mr. Wood's popularity with the lower classes. During a riot in Edinburgh, some of the mob, mistaking him at night (owing to a great resemblance in figure) for Sir James Stirling, then the Lord Provost of the City, and at that ALEXANDER WOOD.
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time far from being a favourite, seized Mr. Wood on the North Bridge, and were going to throw him over the parapet, when he cried out, "I'm lang Sandy Wood—tak' me to a lamp and ye'll see." Instead of executing their vengeance, he was cordially cheered and protected from farther outrage.

Sir James and Mr. Wood, although thus in such different esteem with the lower class of the inhabitants of Edinburgh, were intimate friends. It is told of them, that on one occasion the Provost—with his cocked hat, and long spare figure—meeting the Doctor in the High Street, he jocularly put a guinea into his hand, and giving a piteous account of his sufferings from indigestion, and the state of his stomach, asked his advice. The Doctor—with a figure almost equally spare, and the same head-dress—retreated from the Provost, who continued to follow him, reproaching him for pocketing the money without giving him any opinion on his case. At last, after this scene had lasted some considerable space, Mr. Wood replied to Sir James's remonstrances:—"You're quite wrong, Sir James; I have been giving you the best possible advice all this while. If you'll take hold of my coat-tail, and only follow me for a week as you've been doing for the last ten minutes, you'll have no mors trouble with your stomach."

Although very confident in his own practice, and very decided, Mr. Wood never failed to call in the aid of his professional brethren when there appeared to be real danger. The celebrated Dr. Cullen and he were frequently in attendance together, and on the most friendly and intimate footing. Upon one occasion they were in the sick room of a young nobleman of high promise, who was afflicted with a severe fever—the Doctor on one side of the bed, in his usual formal and important manner, counting the patient's pulse, with his large stopwatch in his hand—Mr. Wood on the other, and the parents anxiously waiting the result. The Doctor abruptly broke the silence—"We are at the crisis; in order to save him, these pills must be taken instantly," producing some from his waistcoat pocket. Mr. Wood, who had a real affection for the young Lord, shook his head significantly, and said with a smile, "O Doctor, Doctor, nature has already done her work, and he is saved. As to your pills—you may just as well gie him some pease meal." The young Lord, now a most distinguished and venerable Earl, tells this anecdote of his old friend, and always adds, that he remembers the whole scene as well as if it had happened yesterday.

A second Print represents Mr. Wood in the full possession of all that activity and fire for which he was distinguished in the hey-day of middle age. The cane is thrown smartly over his shoulder, while the whole bearing of the portrait is admirably illustrative of the bold and original character of the man.

In addition to the foregoing reminiscences, there are a few other characteristic anecdotes of Mr. Wood, which may with propriety be given here. The following humorous one has been related to us by a citizen of Edinburgh, then in his eighty-third year. This gentleman was at the time an apprentice to Deacon Thomson, a glover and breeches-maker by profession. The Deacon was a guzzling hypochondriacal sort of a genius, and, like many others of similar habits, was subject to much imaginary misery. One night he took it into his head that he was djdng. Impressed with this belief, he despatched a messenger for Mr. Wood; but, being very impatient, and terrified that the "grim king" should seize him before the Doctor could come to his rescue, and suspecting that the messenger might dally with his mission, the dying breeches-maker started from the couch of anticipated dissolution, and went himself to the house of Mr. Wood. He knocked violently at the door, and, in a state of great perturbation, told the servant to hurry his master to his house, "For," continued he, "Deacon Thomson is just dying!" Having thus delivered his doleful mission, away hobbled the epicurean hypochondriac, anxious, from certain unpleasant suggestions which instinctively occurred to him, to get again into bed before* the Doctor should arrive. In this wise resolution he was however baulked : Mr. Wood, although half undressed when he received the summons, lost no time in hastening off, and pushed past the Deacon just as he was threading his way up his own turnpike. "Oh, Doctor, it is me" said the hypochondriac. "You!" exclaimed the justly-indignant Sandy Wood, at the same time applying the cane to the back of his patient with the utmost good-will. He then left him to ascend the remainder of the stair with the accelerated motion which the application of this wholesome regimen inspired, and so effectual proved the cure, that our informant has frequently heard the Deacon mention the circumstance in presence of the Doctor.

Another ridiculous story is told of Mr. Wood. The Honourable Mrs.---------had taken a fancy to sit upon hens' eggs, in order that she might hatch chickens. Her relations becoming alarmed for her health, went to consult the Doctor on the subject, who, promising a perfect cure, desired them to make his compliments to their friend (with whom he was well acquainted), and tell her that he meant to have the pleasure of drinking tea with her that evening. The lady, resolving to do honour to her guest, ordered her servant to place her best set of china on the table, and to wheel it up opposite her nest. Mr. Wood made his appearance at the appointed hour, and having, with all due gravity, partaken of a dish of tea, he suddenly laid hold of a portion of the favourite tea-equipage, rushed towards the window, which he opened, and seemed about to throw the whole into the street.

Mrs.---------, alarmed at the insane-like proceeding of her guest, flew to save the valuable china, when Mr. Wood, seizing the opportunity, herried the nest, and broke all the eggs. By this stratagem the whim of his patient was effectually put to flight.

Mr. Wood was an enthusiastic admirer of the great Mrs. Siddons. At her first visit to Edinburgh, many were the fainting and hysterical fits among the fairer portion of the audience. Indeed, the}' were so common that to be supposed to have escaped might almost have argued a want of proper feeling. One night, when the house had been thrown into confusion by repeated scenes of this kind, and when Mr. Wood was most reluctantly getting from the pit (the favourite resort of all the theatrical critics of that day) to attend some fashionable female, a friend said to him in passing, "This is glorious acting, Sandy," alluding to Mrs. Siddons; to which Mr. Wood answered, "Yes, and a d------d deal o't too," looking round at the fainting and screaming ladies in the boxes.

"When routs were first introduced in Edinburgh, they were very formal affairs, being in no way congenial to the manners or temper of the people. At one of the first that had been given, by a person of distinction, the guests were painfully wearing away the time, stiffly ranged in rows along the sides of the room, and looking at each other, the very pictures of dulness and ennui, when Mr. Wood was announced, who, casting his eyes round him, proceeded up the empty space in the middle of the drawing-room, and then addi'essed the lady of the house, saying, "Well, my lady, will ye just tell me what we are all brought here to do?"—an inquiry which everyone felt to be so perfectly appropriate that it was followed by a hearty laugh, which had the effect of breaking up the formality of the party, and producing general hilarity and cheerfulness for the rest of the evening.

If Mr. Wood's kindness of disposition widely diffused itself towards his fellow-creatures, young and old, he was almost equally remarkable for his love of animals. His pets were numerous, and of all kinds. Not to mention dogs and cats, there were two others that individually were better known to the citizens of Edinburgh—a sheep and a raven, the latter of which is alluded to by Sir Walter Scott, in the quotation which has been given from Guy Mannering. Willy, the sheep, pastured in the ground adjoining to the Excise Office, now the Royal Bank, and might be daily seen standing at the railings, watching Mr. Wood's passing to or from his house in York Place, when Willy used to poke his head into his coat-pocket, which was always filled with supplies for his favourite, and would then trot along after him through the town, and sometimes might be found in the houses of the Doctor's patients. The raven was domesticated at an ale and porter-shop in North Castle Street, which is still, or very lately was, marked by a tree growing from the area against the wall. It also kept upon the watch for Mr. Wood, and would recognize him even as he passed at some distance along George Street, and taking a low flight towards him, was frequently his companion during some part of his forenoon walks—for Mr. Wood never entered his carriage when he could possibly avoid it, declaring that unless a vehicle could be found that would carry him down the closes and up the turnpike stairs, they produced nothing but trouble and inconvenience.

It may be superfluous to state that the subject of these brief sketches was rarely spoken of as Mr. Wood, but as Sandy Wood. This general use of the Christian name, instead of the ordinary title, proceeded from a feeling the very opposite of disrespect. It was the result of that affection for his person with which his universal and inexhaustible benevolence and amiable character inspired all who knew him.

Mr. Wood continued to maintain that professional eminence which had been so early conceded to him, and was considered the unrivalled head of the surgical practice in his native city, till within a few years of his death, when increasing infirmities obliged him to retire. He died on the 12th of May, 1807, at the advanced age of eighty-two.


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