A Letter from Miss Nightingale

It would, arguably, be difficult to identify another native of Prestonpans in East Lothian who could claim a better national and international profile than Doctor Tom Alexander C.B., FRCS (Edin).

Born in the town on 6th May 1812, the only son of salt producer William and his wife Helen, Tom spent his entire working life with the Army medical service before dying prematurely at his London desk on 1st February 1860. He was returned to Prestonpans five days later for burial in the family plot.

Alexander was always dedicated to improvement of medical and hygienic conditions available to service personnel and never deviated from that cause wherever he served. Dr. John B. Crombie, M.A., B.Sc., M.D., said of Alexander in his “History of Scottish Medicine” – ‘Measured by the results of his work, he was probably the greatest Director General that the Army Medical Services ever had.’

It is now exactly one hundred and fifty years since 9 September 1862 when Lord Elcho unveiled the Alexander statue at the east end of Prestonpans. Paid for by public and private subscription, the statue was created from local Redhall stone by the eminent sculptor William Brodie, R.S.A.

The impression of Alexander rises to a height of eight feet, showing him in full dress uniform, including decorations, of Director General. The figure, with left hand on sword hilt and the right hooked into his belt, stands on its ornate plinth, apparently looking out to sea. The four sides of that plinth bear a very condensed history of the Doctor’s service and overall, the monument rises to some twenty feet.

The unveiling and dedication was attended by many local dignitaries and a large number of townspeople – all aware of Dr. Alexander who, despite his world travels, had never severed his ties with the town. In some ways, he was an enigmatic figure and unfortunately, never attracted a biographer – a situation which can partially be remedied by preservation of the unveiling and dedication record.

From the time of her arrival at Scutari with her band of nurses in late 1854, Florence Nightingale, with compatible objectives, became involved with Dr. Alexander who had preceded her to that Crimean conflict. Miss Nightingale was invited to Prestonpans for the dedication ceremony but was too ill to accept.

However, during Lord Elcho’s dedication speech, he produced a letter from the lady  in which she provides a brief account of Alexander’s works as she saw them. Miss Nightingale said;

“I must be ill indeed not to say my word for Dr. Alexander. During these two years from 1857 to 1859, I think Mr Herbert met him every day while they were in town at my house, where all the regulations and reports were written. I can truly say I have never seen his like for directness of purpose, unflinching moral courage and honesty. These were qualities which made his loss a public disaster. He never sought advancement for his own ambition – never except to carry out the public service. And when he had obtained it, he never used it except to do the highest service he was capable of. Throughout the whole of the Russian War his published correspondence shows that he cared for no man or thing, if either stood in the way of the public interests. He might have gone on smoothly enough in his routine duties, would he but left ill alone. But this was not in his character. Everywhere, at Gallipoli where he seized the blankets for his sick – in Bulgaria where he fought such a fight for his men in the opening prologue to this Crimean tragedy itself, he showed the same fearless devotion, incurring thereby a serious personal responsibility in order that his men might not perish.

“Most able in the discharge of his own professional duties, he at the same time knew that the army medical officers were not dealt with as they ought to have been, and he was looked up to as the representative of all the best of them and their wishes and ambitions. Even in the Crimea, his character had pointed him out to all observers for the highest position in his department.

When the Royal Commission on the Sanitary State of the Army was issued, Mr Alexander’s service on it was considered so necessary that he was sent for from Canada. He afterwards served on a no less important, though less well known Commission for the drawing up of new army medical regulations which gave our army officers sanitary powers, and a position of usefulness which no army officers in Europe have but ours.

“In all these, he showed the same clearness of sight in discerning the same directness of course in bearing down on his subject. On the retirement of his chief, Lord Panmure called upon him to be Director General [Something actually engineered by Miss Nightingale] And in the short time he occupied the office he showed high administrative ability as well as his old firmness and honesty – his great characteristics.

“He had great difficulties but manfully breasted them all, doing the work personally of nearly his whole office, less any failure at so critical a time should ensue. At this time he used to keep medicines beside him in the office to relieve the effects of hard work, which no inducement would make him lay aside, because he was convinced that it was in the way of his duty.
“As was predicted more than once to him, he fell at his post, as true a sacrifice to duty as if he had fallen in the field. His death caused a regret extending far beyond the limits of his own department; for the public knew that it had lost one of its best servants,

“Ever yours,

“Florence Nightingale.”

The condensed histories shown on the memorial plinth, together with the content of Miss Nightingale’s letter, give only a small indication of Alexander’s lifetime achievements, but there is much, much more detail connected with the man who, among many other things, was responsible for creation of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

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