Alexander Wood

Alexander Wood (1817 – 1884)

Alexander Wood (1817-1884) was a Scottish physician.

Wood promoted the scientific nature of contemporary medicine and attacked unorthodox forms of treatment, most notably homeopathy 

Credited with being the inventor of the first hypodermic needle in 1844, taking the ‘sting of the bee‘ as his means to achieve analgesia by perineural morphine injection; hailed as the father-in-law’ of local anaesthesia.

Legend has it that Wood’s wife, Rebecca Massey, was the first known intravenous morphine addict and died of an overdose delivered by her husband’s invention. Richard Davenport-Hines disagrees ‘It is a myth: she outlived him, and survived until 1896‘ and the communal burial plot in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh would seem to agree.

  • Born December 10, 1817 in Fife, Scotland son of Dr John Wood, a physician in Cupar, Fife
  • 1832 – Matriculated Edinburgh University in arts and medicine 
  • 1839 – MD, University of Edinburgh; appointed physician to the Stockbridge and Royal Public dispensaries 
  • 1841 – Lecturer at the extramural medical school 
  • 1842 – Married Rebecca Massey
  • 1846-1852 elected to the Edinburgh police commissioners; 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 
  • 1852 – failed to be appointed to the chair of Medicine in Glasgow
  • 1853 – Wood used a syringe and treated a case of neuralgia by injecting morphia in the area of discomfort. Published ‘New method of treating neuralgia by subcutaneous injection‘ in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1855
  • 1855 – failed to be appointed to the chair of Medicine in Edinburgh
  • 1858 – President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
  • 1873 – forced to retire through illness
  • Died February 26, 1884

Medical Eponyms
Hypodermic needle (1853)

The concept of a peripheral approach to pain relief was developed by Alexander Wood, who sought to improve the treatment of neuralgia. Other physicians had tried applying morphine to the skin in a process similar to inoculation, but Wood reasoned that it might be more effective to inject the morphine close to the nerve supplying the painful area.

At first this new hypodermic method was employed exclusively for the administration of morphia and preparations of opium, but it is important to note that, from the outset, Dr Wood pointed to a far wider application.

Rev Thomas Brown, 1896: 108

The syringe and hollow needles had been developed by others, but Wood was the first to combine them for drug administration. In 1853, Wood used a syringe and treated a case of neuralgia by injecting morphia in the area of discomfort.

It has frequently occurred to me, that a more direct application of the narcotic to the affected nerve, or to its immediate neighbourhood, would be attended with corre­sponding advantage… 

I procured one of the elegant little syringes, constructed for this purpose by Mr Ferguson of Giltspur Street, London… it occurred to me that it might supply the means of bringing some narcotic to bear more-directly than I had hitherto been able to accomplish on the affected nerve in neuralgia. I resolved to make the attempt, and did not long lack opportunity 

Wood, 1855

Wood used his syringe and opiate method in late 1853 demonstrating local and systemic effects

On November 28th  [1853] I attended  Miss —, an old lady, who had suffered severely for four days from cervico-brachial neuralgia …I inserted the syringe within the angle formed by the clavicle and acromion, and injected twenty drops of a solution of muriate of morphia, of a strength about double that of the officinal preparation .

In about ten minutes after the withdrawal of the   syringe the patient began to complain of giddiness and confusion of ideas ; in half an hour the pain had subsided, and I left her in the anticipation of a refreshing sleep.

I visited her again about 11 A.M. on the 29th; was a little annoyed to find that she had never wakened; the breathing also was somewhat deep, and she was roused with difficulty. Under the use of somewhat energetic stimuli, however, these symptoms disappeared, and from that time to this the neu­ralgia has not returned .

Wood, 1855

In considering the modus operandi of this new application of remedial means…

1st, The local or topical – the particular effect of the medi­cine on the tissue to which it is applied; 2nd, The remote effects – being physical, chemical, or vital changes produced on parts at a distance from those to which the medicine is di­rectly applied, or on the system at large.

Wood, 1855

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. 

The basic design has remained unchanged though interchangeable parts and the use of plastic resulted in the almost universal use of disposable syringes and needles since the mid-1950s

A certain line of reasoning had led Dr. Wood to the belief that benefit was to be expected from the injection of morphia under the skin. 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. This needle he passed under the skin, and through it he injected a small dose of morphia, which he could not give by the mouth. In this manner all derangement of stomach and liver was avoided, and immediate absorption of the morphia into the blood-stream took place.

The strikingly beneficial result which followed this bold experiment made Dr. Wood aware that he now held in his hand a new method of treatment, which promised far-reaching results. Certainly in his most sanguine thoughts he could little have imagined, as he stood at that bedside, how in a few years every physician would be armed with that syringe, and countless patients would have seen cause to bless his skill

Rev Thomas Brown, 1896: 110-111


In 1844, Francis Rynd (1801-1861) developed the first syringe with a hollow needle, although he did not publicise until 1861, six years after Wood claimed to have invented the hypodermic syringe (1855)

The subcutaneous introduction of fluids, for the relief of neuralgia, was first practised in this country by me, in the Meath Hospital, in the month of May, 1844.

Rynd, 1861

Major Publications



Eponymous terms


Studied at the University of Edinburgh MBChB BSc. British doctor currently working in Emergency Medicine in Perth, Western Australia. Interests in Anaesthetics, Critical Care and trail running.

BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

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