MacCormick, Sir Alexander

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MD ad eundem gradum MD ChM, MD (Edin) Hon FRCS(Ed), Hon FRCS, FRACS

Alexander MacCormick was one of the first surgeons to adopt Lister’s method in surgery in England, and was responsible for introducing Lister’s concepts to the Sydney School. He also made significant contributions to various kinds of surgery.

Alexander was born in 1856 in Argyllshire, Scotland, the son of a local small farmer and ship master. He studied Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and graduated MB ChM in 1880, in the same graduation class as Thomas Anderson Stuart, Robert Scot Skirving and Arthur Conan Doyle. He obtained his MRCS in 1881, and after a series of brief appointments, including that of Demonstrator in Physiology at the University of Edinburgh, he went to Liverpool, There he worked as House Surgeon to E R Bickersteth, becoming one of the first surgeons in England to adopt Lister’s methods.

In late 1883, he went to Sydney at the invitation of Anderson Stuart to teach in the new Medical School, this being the first appointment at the University of Sydney for which Anderson Stuart was responsible. Alexander was initially appointed as Demonstrator in Anatomy and Physiology (1883–1885) and then, until 1888, as Demonstrator in Physiology. The extensive experience he gained in dissection as Demonstrator in Anatomy, served as a basis for his later excellence as a surgeon; his position in Physiology, largely concerned with teaching histology, laid the ground-work for his later development as a histopathologist. During this period, he also lectured in Materia Medica (as substitute for Storie Dixson) for two years, and began to take an interest in clinical surgery at the newly opened Prince Alfred Hospital. In collaboration with Anderson Stuart, he conducted some interesting research on the mechanism of swallowing in a patient who lived for 20 years with a pharyngeal ‘window’ created by Alexander during an operation for resection of a tumour metastasis. In 1885, he obtained his MD with a gold medal from Edinburgh University for his thesis on the musculature of the Australian native cat (Dasyurus). He had also begun publishing in the Australasian Medical Gazette, and by 1906 had contributed more than 30 articles.

In 1885 he joined the staff of the Prince Alfred Hospital as Honorary Assistant Surgeon. His excellence as a surgeon was first recognised by Shewen and S T Knaggs, who encouraged him and gave him their support. Consequently, as early as 1890, he became a Senior Surgeon at Prince Alfred Hospital and was appointed University Lecturer in the Principles and Practice of Surgery in succession to Frederick Milford. He held these posts until the end of 1914, when he resigned and took up an appointment at St Vincent’s Hospital until 1931.

Alexander was not a good lecturer or teacher, being taciturn to the point of inarticulateness. However, from the accounts of his contemporaries, he was a brilliant surgeon and an outstanding diagnostician whose reputation was not limited to Australia. His major contribution was to introduce the concepts of Lister into the Sydney School and he is said to have been the first surgeon in Sydney to use a white gown while operating. He made some important original contributions to surgery, among which the most notable were: his insistence that the biliary tree should be patent before closure of the abdomen after gall bladder surgery; his operation for resection of cancer of the tongue and his operation for irreducible dislocation of the metacarpal joint of the thumb.

Alexander’s fame earned him an honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1900 and of Edinburgh in 1905. He was knighted in 1913, becoming a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1926. He founded a hospital (The Terraces), now called The Scottish Hospital, in Paddington, which he ultimately gave to the Scottish community together with a £25,000 endowment, in memory of his son who had been killed in the World War I.

He became extremely wealthy, not only through the practice of his profession, but also from some very hard-headed property speculation, and in 1931, at the age of 75, he retired completely and sailed to the Channel Islands. He returned to Australia for a few months in 1935 and attended a valedictory dinner given in his honour by Sir Herbert Schlink at which Scot Skirving was the principal speaker. It was Sir Alexander’s farewell to the profession in Australia as shortly afterwards, he returned to Jersey. He remained there until his death in 1947 at the age of 91, with but a brief interruption during the war: He escaped from Jersey in his yacht, only hours before the Nazis arrived. This account makes dramatic reading and is a tale worthy of this rather remarkable man.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) MacCormick, Sir Alexander. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.