Medical Officers
Of the Malta Garrison
William Alexander
1830 – 1897

No 297 Surgeon General William Alexander Mackinnon

KCB CB (Mil 1864) KLH (1856) QHS (1893) LLD (Glas) LRCS (Ed 1851)

27 June 1830 [Strath Isle of Skye] – 28 Oct 1897 [London]

William A Mackinnon
Surgeon William Alexander Mackinnon 57th Regt (Lt Col Foster's collection of Netley photos - courtesy AMS Archives)

Surgeon General William Alexander Mackinnon was the son of the Rev. J. Mackinnon, Minister of the Parish of Strath, in Skye. He studied medicine in Glasgow and Edinburgh and in 1853, entered the army as Assistant Surgeon in the 42nd Highlanders.

After the Crimea he left the army for a short time, but was reappointed and placed on the staff of Sir Colin Campbell (Lord Clyde), with whom he was present at many engagements during the Indian Mutiny. His next active service was as sanitary officer during the New Zealand Maori war of 1863–66, and finally as senior medical officer in the Ashanti expedition of 1874.

In 1882, he became head of the Medical Branch in the War Office, and succeeded Sir Thomas Crawford as Director General of the Army Medical Service in 1889. He retired in 1896.

Sir William proved himself an administrator of tact and discretion. He was a man of great personal courage, which he displayed on active service on several occasions; he was also a very expert operative surgeon in the field. Few men were better known or more popular with all ranks, and this esteem extended into civil life, from members of the Royal Family downwards. He was an Honorary Surgeon to the Queen, and the recipient of a distinguished service pension. From his university he received the degree of LLD of Glasgow.1

He had the temperament of his Celtic nationality, and was quick in his ardour for achieving what he considered right, and as prompt and also severe in denouncing that which seemed to him wrong. On every question that came before him he expressed his opinion in the plainest and most uncompromising terms. He had no fear of anybody or anything. His views on the question of rank and title to medical officers were against the military surgeon receiving a purely military title. He later modified this opinion, and had said in conversation only a few days before his death that if contentment came of it in the Army Medical Department he should decidedly be in favour of the rank and title asked for being given.1

Among his publications were:

Service Record

18 Feb 1853 Commissioned Staff Assistant Surgeon vice Staff Assistant Surgeon Robert Villiers George who was promoted surgeon 12th Foot.

1853 On duty in Dublin.

1854 On duty in the Ionian Islands.

24 Mar 1854 Assistant Surgeon 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot. Served with it throughout the Eastern Campaign of 1854 – 55. Was present at the Battles of Alma and Balaclava in medical charge of the regiment, the expedition to Kertch and Yenikale, the siege and fall of Sebastopol and the assault on the Redan on 18 June and 8 September. He received the medal with three clasps and the Turkish Medal and in 1856 was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour.

1857 Transferred to 59th Regiment; resigned the service on 31 July 1857, but was restored to the establishment on 23 October 1857 as a Staff Assistant Surgeon on the personal staff of Sir Colin Campbell.

18 Dec 1857 Appointed Assistant Surgeon 29th Regiment of Foot, vice Assistant Surgeon John Smith Chartres, appointed to the Staff.

Apr 1858 – 1859 Surgeon on the personal Staff of Lord Clyde during the Indian Mutiny from April 1858 till the end of the war. He was present in the campaigns in Rohilcund, Byswarrah, and Trans-Gogra, including the actions of Bareilly, Shahjehanpore, Doondiakeira, Bergudia, Musjenia, and Raptee.

25 Mar 1859 Reappointed Assistant Surgeon 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot, vice Assistant Surgeon Thomas Allen Thornhill, who became Assistant Surgeon 7th Light Dragoons on the death of William Edgeworth Lynch at Lucknow on 24 January 1859.

10 July 1860 Appointed Staff Assistant Surgeon.

1861 On duty in Chatham.

5 Feb 1861 The promotion of Staff Assistant Surgeon W. A. Mackinnon to Staff Surgeon was cancelled as a result of the reduction of the Medical Staff in China.

28 Jan 1862 Promoted Staff Surgeon, vice Staff Surgeon-Major William Home who became Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals. The subsequent vacancy on the Staff was filled by the recall from half-pay of Staff Assistant Surgeon Henry Walker.

4 Mar 1862 Exchanged with Surgeon James Carroll Dempster 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot.

1863 – 1866 Served in the New Zealand War, including the capture of the rebel position at Katikara and repulse of the attack of Gilbert's Clearing. Was appointed Sanitary Officer to the New Zealand Force in November 1863, and held the appointment till April 1866, when field operations ceased. In that capacity he served in the campaigns in the Waikato, Tauranga, and Wanganui districts, on the head-quarters staff of Sir Duncan Cameron, and attached to the Quartermaster-General's Department. He was present in the action at Rangiawhia, assault of the Gate Pah, Tauranga, repulse of the enemy's attack on the camp at Nukumaru, and the affair at Kakaramea. Was mentioned in despatches and awarded the CB for his services at Tauranga.

In the attack upon a chief's Pah the combatant officers having been one by one disabled he took command himself and captured the position. Afterwards, he treated as a surgeon several of those he had himself wounded in the earlier part of the day. In the New Zealand war he was very proud of some successful excisions of the elbow, an operation only coming into favour again at that time.

14 Sep 1866 Specially promoted Surgeon–Major 57th Regiment for his ability and zeal displayed during operations in New Zealand.

1 Jan 1867 Promoted Staff Surgeon–Major (completed almost 14 years' service).

Feb 1867 – Dec 1873 Stationed at the Army Medical School Netley, as Assistant Professor of Military Surgery, Sir Thomas Longmore being the Professor. He remained at Netley until November 1873, when he went to Madeira.

1873 – 1874 Principal Medical Officer in the second phase of the Ashanti War, including the Battle of Amoaful, Battle of Ordahsu, and capture of Coomassie. Was mentioned in despatches, and specially promoted Deputy Surgeon–General for his services against the Ashantis. At Amoaful, he tied the carotid artery of the Sergeant-Major 42nd Foot.

When Lord Wolseley led the first expedition to Coomassie, Mackinnon was most anxious to serve. He was not selected, and characteristically determined that if possible he should not be baulked of his wish. He started for Madeira to be as near as possible to the scene of action, and hearing there that the Principal Medical Officer, Sir Anthony Dickson Home, was disabled, he left at once for the Coast, where Lord Wolseley was most glad to receive him.1

1 Apr 1874 Appointed Deputy Surgeon–General at Aldershot.

1878 – 1879 In Colchester. Transferred to Hong Kong in 1879.

26 May 1880 Appointed Surgeon–General.

June 1880 Orders were despatched to Deputy Surgeon General W. A. Mackinnon CB, serving as Principal Medical Officer at Hong Kong to proceed from that station and to take over the duties of PMO at Malta in anticipation of his promotion to the rank of Surgeon-General. The post of PMO Malta had been vacant since the retirement of Surgeon-General Godfrey William Watt in March 1880.3

Malta 13 Oct 1880 Arrived from Hong Kong.

Malta 29 Dec 1881 The Governor, General Sir Arthur Borton, temporary appointed Dr Mackinnon a Member of the Medical Board of the Lunatic Asylum with the object in view of thinning the wards of that establishment which had become much overcrowded, and on the understanding that he will resign his seat at that Board should the War Office agree to allow him to undertake the duties which it is proposed to assign to him as Inspector and Visitor of the Charitable Institutions. The Army PMO is not intended that he should perform any duties either in connection with the Medical Police, which is under the control of the Superintendent of Police, or with the Sanitary Officer, which is entirely managed by a Medical Board in accordance with the provisions of Ordnance No II of 1880.2 The Governor had intended for the PMO to serve as an Inspector and visitor of the Charitable Institutions. As his role included the visitation of dispensaries, the governor recommended to relieve the Chief Police Physician of performing this duty of Inspector of Dispensaries.

Malta 1881 Surgeon-General William Alexander McKinnon performed a colostomy in a patient with carcinoma of the rectum, but the patient died from extension of his disease, eighty three days after the operation.

Malta 1882 Recommended the appointment of Dr J. Bonnici and Dr V. Tabone to the medical posts at Rodrigues Island (Mauritius) and Fiji. Dr Bonnici was unable to take the appointment in Mauritius for family reasons, and was replaced by Dr Mifsud. On 30 June 1883, Dr Tabone was appointed assistant surgeon on St Lucia.5

Malta 6 June 1882 Left for London, where he took up his appointment as Head of the Medical Branch of the Army Medical Department War Office vice Surgeon–General George Augustus Frederick Shelton. The appointment included the command of the Army Hospital Corps.
Was succeeded by Deputy Surgeon–General James Edmund Clutterbuck who was ordered home from Lucknow to take up duty at Malta as Principal Medical Officer.4

1888 Placed in medical charge of Gibraltar.

4 May 1889 Appointed Director General of the Army Medical Department, vice Sir Thomas Crawford KCB, MD, whose period of service in that appointment expired on 7 May 1889.

7 May 1896 Retired.

William A Mackinnon
William Alexander Mackinnon
(Courtesy AMS Museum)

28 Oct 1897 Sir William died at his residence, Evelyn Gardens, London. He remained unmarried.
For some time past he had suffered from cardiac weakness, with occasional attacks approaching real angina, of the gravity of which he was well aware, although he still retained a share of the robust health he had long enjoyed. During the dense fog of Thursday week he was suddenly seized with difficulty of breathing, the result, apparently, of pulmonary congestion, which, reacting on a weak heart, caused death in a few hours. His remains were cremated at Woking on 2 November. A memorial service was held at St Columba's Church, Pont Street. His ashes were deposited in the family burying ground at Kilchrist, Strath of the Mackinnons.1

A Memorial tablet erected by brother officers and several old comrades and friends is preserved at the RAMC Museum: Sacred to the memory of Surgeon General Sir William Alexander MacKinnon KCB QHS, Army Medical Staff. Born at Strath, Isle of Skye 27 June 1830, Died London 28 Oct 1897. He served in the Crimea with 42nd Royal Highlanders and through the Indian Mutiny on the personal staff of Lord Clyde. He also took part in the New Zealand and Ashanti Campaigns (1873 – 74) and closed as Director General of the Army Medical Department an honourable and active career which extended over 43 years.