Doctor John made a great contribution to the county's health
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HERITAGE MATTERS: Our regular column from the Wick Society – this time looking at the work of Dr John Alexander, medical officer of health for Caithness
While a debate continues about statutes and their historical value, a Wick statute commemorates a man who contributed not only to our heritage but to the health of the county. Dr John Alexander’s monument stands proudly at the riverside, near the railway station. Designed by an Italian sculptor and erected by J Hood and Sons, it looks over the town that he gave so much to.
The Wick Heritage Museum is also proud to commemorate Dr John Alexander by being able to display his wonderful box of medical specimen slides.
John Alexander was born in 1839 at Cromiequoy Farm, Watten, where his father William was a farmer. John initially studied for a teaching career but an interest in medicine took over and he qualified from Glasgow in 1867. On qualification he worked as a surgeon at the Bedlington Colliery in Northumberland. A degree of MD was conferred on him by Durham University.
Returning to Wick, he set up his medical practice in 1868 and was later joined in the practice by his brother, Alexander. Their medical practice covered much of Caithness and Doctor John, as he was known, brought his professional skills and compassion to his many patients. He loved Caithness and understood its people.
He was quoted (John O’Groat Journal) as saying: “We are an emotional people and sentiment plays a large part in our actions. There is a strong sentimental element binding kindred and communities together attaching us to our native place."
In 1891 John Alexander became the first full-time medical officer of health for the county of Caithness. His salary was to be £300 per annum plus £50 travelling expenses. At his own expense he obtained a Diploma in Public Health. As a member of the community, he was a justice of the peace and a member of Wick Town Council and he served on the Carnegie Public Library Committee. He was also a “faithful member” of the United Free Church.
As medical officer of health he found the state of sanitation somewhat less than desirable. A report into sanitation in Caithness, around that time, found “livestock was permitted to share the meagre accommodation of the cottages. But though they bred thus, under circumstances which would turn the blood of a sanitary inspector cold, the people seemed to thrive on this primitive mode of existence.”
A report into sanitation in Caithness found “livestock was permitted to share the meagre accommodation of the cottages".
In an extensive report to the district committee of the county he said that he would impress upon the council "the great importance of adopting the Infectious Diseases (Notification) Act at an early date”.
Ironically, it was an infectious disease that led to the early death of his brother, Dr Alexander Alexander. He had graduated in medicine from Edinburgh in 1875 and was a past president of the Edinburgh Caithness Association. This family tradition with medicine was to continue.Alexander’s son, William Allister, born 1890, graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1912. In turn his son David and daughter Isobel followed medical careers.
Alexander Alexander died of typhus fever in 1894, which he contracted during the care of his patients. The Scotsman reported: "Dr Alexander, Wick, died on Sunday from fever contracted in the discharge of his professional duties. The sad event has caused deep regret in the town and throughout the county where Dr Alexander had an extensive practice and was greatly respected."
D H A Boyd's book Amulets to Isotopes stated: "If one man could be said to have done most to improve health in Caithness then it would be John Alexander.” He died at Wick on December 5, 1901, and is buried in his native Watten.