The Hypodermic Syringe

Writer and doctoral researcher Gillian Shirreffs contemplates the history of the hypodermic syringe.

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

There is some disagreement over who invented the hypodermic syringe. There is, however, consensus as to the year. In 1853 either Alexander Wood, a Scottish physician, or Charles Gabriel Pravaz, a French surgeon, was first to develop a device recognisable as today’s hypodermic syringe. More generous scholars contend that they did so virtually simultaneously.

Sadly, for him, Pravaz had the misfortune of dying in the June of 1853 shortly after he had developed his version of a syringe with a thin metal needle attached to its end. Whereas Wood went on to publish a paper, A New Method for Treating Neuralgia by the Direct Application of Opiates to Painful Points, in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1855 and in doing so provided the hypodermic syringe with a formal introduction to the world.

It seems Wood’s, or indeed Pravaz’s, invention was not called a hypodermic syringe until Dr Charles Hunter, a young house surgeon at St George’s Hospital in London, coined the name in a paper published in 1858 (presumably borrowing from the Greek: “hypo” for under and “dermic” for skin).

Hunter has been described as something of an adversary of Wood due to his contention that it was unnecessary to inject morphine into the actual site of a patient’s pain or neuralgia. Rather, he argued that the drug had a systemic effect and was therefore equally, if not more so, efficacious when administered to a more general area of the body (avoiding the unpleasant consequences of multiple injections at the one site).

Unfortunately for Hunter, he died in his early forties. Thus, like Pravaz before him, he predeceased his rival, allowing the legacy of the older (and by all accounts much respected) Alexander Wood to be the one with historical legs.

Those legs, however, have not always run aright.

Thanks to the phenomenon of the urban myth, a spurious tale has grown up and attached itself to the good doctor. It has been claimed on the internet that Wood’s wife, Rebecca Massey Wood, was the first recorded fatality from a hypodermic syringe overdose, having become addicted to morphine. Whilst such a tragedy would be irresistibly ironic, the tale is merely apocryphal. In reality, a hale and hearty Mrs Wood lived into her seventy-fifth year and upon her death in 1895 was buried in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh next to her husband, who had been interred some eleven years earlier.

Original hypodermic syringe of Dr. Alexander Wood. The first used in Great Britain. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The earliest memory I have of my skin being pierced by a hypodermic syringe happened in first year at secondary school. During the summer holidays I had decided that I would experiment with being someone new when I went up to “the big school”. One of the novel character traits I decided to try out for size was bravery. This led me to volunteer to be first when our class was instructed mid-lesson to go and see the nurse for our BCG injection (the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin vaccination). My courage lasted until she instructed me to remove my cardigan and roll up the sleeve of my shirt.

I successfully avoided needles for most of the next two decades (except when I was given no option but to receive a tetanus jab after an incident involving a much-loved cat, a chicken bone and the much-loved cat’s incisor).

It should come as no surprise then, that at the age of twenty-two I successfully sidestepped the offer of a steroid injection during an episode of optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve). The pain I experienced was easily an eight on the pain scale. I, however, declared it to be no more than a four and by doing so avoided having a needle inserted into my eye.

As I was very healthy – barring the incident of optic neuritis that rendered me unilaterally blind for a few months – I was never asked to submit myself to having my blood drawn (and back then I was too slight to donate any, being just over seven stone). This fateful request first came when I was thirty.

I am quite sure the nurse tasked with the appropriation of a small vial of my blood did not believe my claim that this was my first time as I imagine she could not envision anyone would have been able to dodge such a routine medical procedure for three decades. I am equally certain she wished she had not had been given the assignment.

‘Sharpsafe’ disposal bin for contaminated sharps, United Kin. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

I neither fainted nor squealed but I held up the proceedings with the beginnings of some now perfected delaying tactics. I also made it quite clear that the sensation the nurse had advertised as a small scratch was nothing of the sort. I was then, and sadly I continue to be, high maintenance for practitioners of phlebotomy. The fact I have low blood pressure does not help. Neither does the practice my veins have adopted of rolling away from any sharp instrument that attempts to seek them out. It seems my blood would prefer to stay put.

On advice, I now drink pints of water for days before any planned blood draw, which generally, but not always, makes the process easier on everyone.

I feel compelled to mention that I have yet to faint or squeal. Each time I am obliged to encounter a hypodermic syringe, my outward appearance is calm – like the duck who moves smoothly with grace and speed on the still surface of a pond whilst carefully eluding the hungry hunting party of piranhas below. This may well be the reason my piteous plea that a child’s needle be used is met with surprise and, at times, consternation.


Gillian Shirreffs is in the third year of a Doctor of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at the University of Glasgow in which she is exploring the relationship between object and illness, with specific reference to multiple sclerosis.


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