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Alexander Murray Drennan (1884-1984)

Scottish pathologist who promoted the widespread use of Edinburgh University Solution (Eusol) during the First World War.

Alexander Murray Drennan
Alexander Murray Drennan in Cairo, 1915. University of Edinburgh/LHSA GD9

Early life

Drennan - known as Murray to friends and family - was born in Glasgow, the son of Margaret (née Murray) and Alexander Drennan who lived in the Hillhead area. His mother died during or shortly after his birth, and his family subsequently moved to Helensburgh in what was then Dunbartonshire, now Argyle and Bute.

Drennan was educated at Larchfield Academy in the town before moving to Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow. He then enrolled to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with the MBChB in 1906, before taking a position in the Residency of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

Letters to Nan

In April 1909 he married Marion Galbraith, known as Nan, his childhood sweetheart. While studying at Edinburgh, Drennan wrote an abundance of letters to Nan, now all held in the University's Special Collections. In one, he recounts his daily routine as a medical student:

Our first class begins at 8am so we have to be up betimes in the morning. From 8 to 10 I have anatomy and then at 11 I go over to the Infirmary; nominally we leave there at 1pm but on Operation days, twice a week at least, it is often 3 before I get away as I have the pleasure of being the instrument clerk and as such have to see after the instruments.

Extract from GD9/45, University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections/LHSA

As well as the rigours of study, he also told Nan about his visits to the theatre, attending dinners, and playing tennis and golf, giving a well-rounded view of student life at the time.

War and Eusol

In 1914 Drennan received a professorship at Otago University in New Zealand, but this was interrupted in 1915 when he was conscripted to the First World War effort. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as an official pathologist at the general military hospital at Moudros, Greece, serving the Dardanelles campaign. He was later moved to Alexandria, Egypt, to serve the Mediterranean and Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

Drennan is particularly remembered in this period for pioneering the use of the antispetic Edinburgh University Solution of (chlorinated) Lime to treat soldiers' wounds. Known by the brand name Eusol, this combination of bleach and boric acid was developed by the University's pathology department, in collaboration with Drennan during his time at the Royal Infirmary. Drennnan's initial experiments with the solution in both wards and in the field had shown great success at reducing infection and speeding up healing, and he became a devoted and successful advocate of its widespread use, with it becoming an established treatment in 1916. Indeed even today, varieties of the solution are still used in wound treatment.

Later career and life

Drennan returned to New Zealand in late 1917 to resume his professorship. In 1924 he was awarded the degree Doctor of Medicine by the University of Edinburgh for his thesis, 'Studies on goitre in New Zealand', and stayed in New Zealand until 1929 when he took on a role as Professor at Queens University Belfast. He only stayed there two years, however, returning to Edinburgh as Professor of Pathology. In 1932 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Drennan retired in 1954. He died in Stirling on 29 February 1984, a few weeks after his 100th birthday.

Related links

Lothian Health Services Archive

Additional sources

University Library blog: Pioneer of Eusol