Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
Sir James Wylie, Baronet, MD

Hello Alastair:

I am not long home from visiting St. Petersburg - although I am not certain in which time zone my body is residing ! While I knew St. Petersburg has been extremely important to the Scottish delegation I travelled with, I had no previous idea just how important Scotland is to the people there. I have come home with the impression that from the youngest of school children to the historians, they know more Scottish history than any of us.  Their love of everything Scottish stems from their educational studies of how instrumental the Scots were in building their city and the foundation on which it grew. I did know, before I went, that Robert Burns was as much a National Hero there as he is in Scotland and that the annual Burn's Supper is reputed to be the biggest celebration held anywhere.  What I was surprised to hear at many many receptions, was his poems recited in both English and in Russian. We were even treated to several Russian Bagpipe recitals, complete with Scottish dance and costumes. It was a packed week beginning in the early morning each day and continuing non stop until mid-night.  I found the beauty of the city and the hospitality of the people, simply overwhelming. It was especially exciting, for me,  to see it in Winter. I enjoyed every moment.
The group I travelled with was the "St. Petersburg Charity Forum, Scotland", located in Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire.  which was formed, perhaps 10 or so years ago, in an effort to promote links between the two countries and assist with educational and medical training. This, no doubt, was very much needed after the ending of Soviet Russia domination. From this has developed "The House of Friendship" in St. Petersburg.
I was present when my friend Dr. Peter Semple delivered his paper on my  uncle, Sir James Wylie  last week and you will be pleased, as I am also, to hear that he was most agreeable that I share his presentation with you and has given his permission for you to copy it, should you wish,  on to your web-site. Our week there was titled "The Days of Scotland in St. Petersburg" and was the opening event for their year long celebration marking the 300 Year Anniversary of the city. You may know that in 1995 St. Petersburg and Edinburgh were "twinned" and became partner-cities. 
I also have 2 earlier papers delivered by Dr. Semple, should they too be of interest to you, however, I would have to photocopy and snail-mail them as my scanner is not set up.  You mentioned your hope is locating " an antiquarian book on Scots in Russia". When in Russia, Dr. Semple presented me with a book "The Caledonian Phalanx - Scots in Russia". This may not be the book you mentioned but should it be, it was published by the National Library of Scotland Edinburgh  1987  and the ISBN number is 0-902220-88-8
Thank you Alastair for your interest in my Sir James . I hope you enjoy Dr. Semple's paper.
All the Best,
Barbara Neish - Bermuda

His statue in St Petersburg


Dr Peter d’Almaine Semple, DL, MBChB, (Glasgow), MD, (Glasgow), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Glasgow), FRCP(Edinburgh), FRCP(London) – Consultant Physician in Internal and Respiratory Medicine, Chairman of St Petersburg Charity Forum.

Mr Churov, Ladies and Gentlemen,

  • This short presentation is dedicated to the memory of Sir James Wylie.
  • I would like to acknowledge three people
  • Firstly Dr Andrei Shabunin who sadly died last year – Dr Shabunin was an Academician, an anaesthetist and medical historian and he was the authority on Wylie. He collaborated with me on research on Wylie and we published an article together in the journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (1).
  • Secondly Professor Andrei Novik of the Military Medical Academy – Andrei introduced me to the story of Wylie and we also wrote an article which was published in Scottish Medical Journal (2).
  • Thirdly Barbara Neish – proud descendent of Wylie and here today – this is her first visit to Russia – (Barbara stands) whereas Barbara is short, slim and dark haired – Wylie was very tall but also slim and dark haired.

The enlightenment occurred in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. New scientific discoveries and challenges to traditional ways of thinking led to accelerated change and development in many spheres of knowledge.

Scotland played an important part in the enlightenment and also in 18th century intellectual life in general. In fact Scotland’s influence was out of proportion to its size – but why?

FIRSTLY – Scotland had one of the best school systems in Europe at that time, provided by the dominant Presbyterian church.

SECONDLY – Presbyterianism was and still is associated with an ethos of hard work and endeavour.

THIRDLY – Scotland had 4 ancient universities; St Andrews founded in 1412, Glasgow 1451, Aberdeen 1494 (Wylie MD), and Edinburgh as late as 1583. In an era when universities in general were stagnant and unproductive, Edinburgh and Glasgow in particular were intellectually active.

FOURTHLY – Before the union with England in 1707, Scotland had been subjugated by England. After 1707 Scotland enjoyed economic, agricultural and industrial growth – so the new wealth and prosperity led to a new confidence.

Scottish achievement was many faceted:-

  • Philosophy – David Hume
  • Economics – Adam Smith
  • Sociology – Adam Ferguson
  • Chemistry – Joseph Black (Black was elected an Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences)
  • Engineering – James Watt
  • Architecture – Robert Adam and also his father and brother

Botanists, geologists, explorers, missionaries, military experts, artists, poets (Robert Burns was from this era) etcetera, etcetera.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768) was published in Edinburgh.

And added to all that there were medical men in abundance. The reason is that Scotland had 4 medical schools (and still has to this day) at a time when England, with 10 times the population, had only one – and so Scotland’s medical influence was the greater.

Now that Scotland was part of the United Kingdom, which was rapidly expanding its empire, the influence of Scots abroad was major – hence the term "Great Scot" a common expletive used by non Scots.

A FIFTH reason for the immense Scottish influence abroad was that students from abroad, including Russians, came to study at Scottish universities. One such was Semen Desnitskii who studied at Glasgow University between 1761 and 1767.

He was taught philosophy by the great Adam Smith and chemistry by the famous Joseph Black and Roman-British law by James Miller. He obtained his masters degree in 1765 and doctorate in law in 1767 after which he returned to Russia. He became Professor of Law at Moscow University and later earned the accolade "Father of Russian Jurisprudence" – just one example of the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on Russia.

-------------- " -------------

This all leads me to JAMES WYLIE – my hero, who had the benefit of education during Scotland’s "Golden Age".

He was born in 1768 in Kincardine on Forth – a seaside port about 20 miles from Edinburgh. After leaving school he was apprenticed to the local doctor and when aged 18 he matriculated at Edinburgh University.

Edinburgh at that time was considered to have the best medical school in Europe.

WILLIAM CULLEN, Professor of Medicine, had been taught by Boerhaave of Leyden, considered to be the best medical teacher of all time. By reputation, Cullen is considered to be second only to Boerhaave.

He was also taught by Joseph Black, formerly of Glasgow University, Professor of Chemistry and discoverer of Carbon Dioxide and by Francis Home, Professor of Materia Medica and famous for recognising the importance of sterilising drinking water. Professor Home’s text, "Principia Medicinae" was translated into Russian in 1786.

So with that background Wylie was guaranteed an excellent medical education.

Added to all that, the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary had been built in 1741 and the structure and organisation of that hospital were important influences on Wylie.

Having completed his training, in 1790 he moved to Russia. Catherine the Great had encouraged foreign doctors to settle in her empire and many were Scots who enjoyed better career prospects than at home. Like others before him Wylie achieved the highest positions in the Russian Military hierarchy such were his abilities.

Wylie became a military surgeon in the Eletsky Regiment and saw service at the sieges of Warsaw and Cracov.

He then saved the life of the Danish Ambassador, Baron Otto Von Bloom, where other surgeons including Scots had failed and in consequence Wylie was appointed to the Royal Household in 1795.

Then came his great breakthrough. Count Kutaisof, a close friend of the Czar, was extremely ill. Wylie offered to help but the senior surgeons would not let him. Only when the situation was desperate was Wylie allowed to be involved. He performed a tracheotomy, the first in Russia and thereby saved Count Kutaisof’s life – instant fame for Wylie – he was appointed Physician to Czar Paul in1798.

Years later, Wylie used to recount how he "owed his promotion to cutting Count Kutaisof’s throat".

Czar Paul was strangled by a group of officers in 1801 – Wylie and two other Scottish doctors performed the post mortem examination and issued the death certificate declaring that Paul dies of apoplexy – Wylie must therefore have been involved in that intrigue.

Paul was succeeded by Alexander I – a benevolent monarch. He was interested in the medical services and under him Wylie flourished.

Wylie had witnessed appalling scenes of carnage – for instance 30,000 dead at Austerlitz. Officers received the doctors’ undivided attention on the battlefield and the ordinary soldier was left unattended. Wylie changed all that and it is certainly true that Wylie transformed the medical services of the Russian army with Czar Alexander’s approval.

Wylie himself attended the wounded in 20 battles – at Bordolino where 45,000 Russians were killed, he treated 200 wounded personally.

In recognition of all this he was knighted and made Baronet of the United Kingdom in London in 1814 by the Prince Regent.

In 1824 he himself was injured and such was his regard for Wylie that Czar Alexander sat at Wylie’s bedside for three days.

Wylie in turn cared for Czar Alexander. He had saved his life more than once but the Czar eventually died of Crimean fever in 1825. This loss of his friend affected Wylie greatly but the new Czar Nichols I continued Wylie’s appointment as his personal physician.

I will list some of Wylie’s attributes and achievements:-

  • Though very senior he visited and inspected the hospitals personally to ensure that high standards were maintained.
  • He was skilled as a physician as well as surgeon and used many of his own remedies – for instance ‘Solution Mineralis’ to cure malaria.
  • He continued to teach students even when he was the Czar’s personal physician
  • He wrote many important medical texts including:-
        • A brief manual of field surgery
        • Russian Pharmacopoeia – in print for more than 50 years
        • Methods of water purification
  • He was a great administrator of the medical services.
  • He established case records for all patients for the first time.
  • All hospitals had to supply annual mortality and morbidity statistics for Wylie’s inspection.
  • Hospitals were built according to his plans.
  • He promoted the training of Russians as doctors rather than importing them and he set up new medical schools in Moscow and St Petersburg – the Medico-Chirurgical Academy, very much on the Edinburgh model.
  • He was President of the Medico-Chirurgical Academy for 30 years and developed it as a centre for medical research.
  • He founded the journal of the Academy – still published to this day.
  • He improved the legal status and financial position of doctors.
  • He established examinations and certification of doctors thus preventing charlatans from practising.

A man ahead of his time.

Wylie received many accolades and awards and many valuable gifts in recognition of his services.

He continued to be active till late in life and he remained mentally alert and in good health till his death at the age of 85 in 1854 in St Petersburg.

He was buried in the city in the presence of the Czar and all the Court such was their regard for him.

Wylie never married and he left his estate to the Russian nation for the construction of a large hospital to house the pupils of the Medico-Chirurgical Academy.

It was on the steps of that building that Professor Andrei Novik introduced me to the story of James Wylie seven years ago.

James Wylie

  • My hero
  • A proud son of Scotland
  • A great Russian patriot
  • And a worthy product of the Scottish Age of Enlightenment

(1) Novik A.A., Mazurov V.I., Semple P. d’A. The life and times of Sir James Wylie Bt, MD, 1768-1854, Body Surgeon and Physician to the Czar and Chief of the Russian Military Medical Department. Scottish Medical Journal 1996;41:116-120

(2) Shabunin A. Semple P. d’A. Achievements in Russia of Sir James Wylie Bt, MD. – A Scottish Graduate. Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 1999;29:76-82

Hello Alastair
Do you remember me - an my relationship with "The Famous Scot", Sir James Wylie? I  might have mentioned that my family record all our events in rhyme. These few lines by Frances, a very special sister, recording for our family, my recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Perhaps, you might wish to add it to Sir James' page? <:))
Barbara Neish

It had been a Week filled with Emotion
To have shared in Scotland's Pride
As they Honoured Scots in Russia
To have learned our "Own" was not denied.
He was Remembered as a Hero
A Great Monument was Raised
And as she traced his Ancient Footsteps
She heard Sir Wylie highly Praised.
This was a Journey she would Cherish
And as the End was drawing nigh,
There was just one final Homage,
Before she sadly said Good-bye.
So on a pristine Russian Morning,
Scotland's Piper by her side,
She tread a freshly shoveled path
With Dignity and Pride.
The Sun was slowly rising,
Just peeping through the trees,
Her hand tightly clutched the flowers,
As they ruffled in the breeze.
It had been a long and yearned for Journey,
From her Bermuda shore,
But at last, she stood in Tolkov
His Burial Place in Days of Yore.
Her Odyssey would be fulfilled,
From Womb to Tomb complete
And forever she would Cherish
This Sacred soil, beneath her feet.
When standing at his Grave side,
She sent up a silent prayer,
Asked God to Bless James Wylie,
And might he know that she was there.
For him to hear the Pipes of Scotland
To know his Legacy lives on,
To know she'd come to Honour him,
On this Frosty Russian dawn,
From Womb to Tomb she'd searched him out,
His Wylie blood flows in her Veins,
Sir James Wylie ...called by Others,
By her....."My Uncle James".

Frances Marie Neish
sister to
Barbara Ruth Neish
Who experienced The Odyssey
 From Bermuda to St. Petersburg, Russia
 January-February 2003
With much gratitude to
Dr. Peter Semple - Pasha Kaddouri & Piper Finlay Campbell,
who made the Odyssey happen
Piper Finlay Campbell - Barbara Neish - Dr. Peter Semple
The photograph was taken February 2003 in Tolkov Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Russia
and pictured there is: Piper Finlay Campbell - Barbara Neish - Dr. Peter Semple
The Lament that Finlay played was "Bells of Dunblane"

See also Sir James Wylie, Baronet

Return to our Significant Scots page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus