Dr. Alexander Baxter (1777-1841) was one of several British doctors who attended Napoleon Bonaparte during his internship on St Helena.
Although there is unquestionable evidence that Brother Baxter was a Freemason, there are few details about his involvement in the Masonic Craft. Indeed, beyond his admission into the Lodge of Glasgow St Mungo, we know nothing about his masonic pursuits.
Baxter’s initiation into Freemasonry occurred soon after Europe had been shaken to its core by the French Revolution and its aftermath. Secret Societies were viewed with suspicion and at various times legislation was enacted against them.
St Helena, where Napoleon was incarcerated in October 1815, is located in the South Atlantic Ocean 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janiero. He died there on 5 May 1821 aged 52 years.
Dr Baxter had arrived there on 14 April 1816.
Freemasonry may have existed on the island prior to that. The Governor. Sir Hudson Lowe, received a letter from HRH the Duke of Kent recommending to his notice a map and plans of St Helena. He wrote: “Upon the map and in the close vicinity of “Maldiva Gardens” where Barracks were afterwards erected there is shown the outline of a building-coloured red with words “Masons’ Lodge”. The Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, was appointed Grand Master of The Ancient Grand Lodge of England in 1813, which joined The Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1813 to form The United Grand Lodge of England.
Baxter may have pursued his masonic activities on the island because of his close relationship with Lowe. Indeed, it was Sir Hudson Lowe who requested Baxter’s appointment as Deputy Inspector of Hospitals on St Helena during Napoleon’s exile.
It is unclear why Baxter, from an old Edinburgh family, should have joined a Lodge of Freemasons in Glasgow. However, the second half of the 18th Century and the early 19th Century were extremely volatile political times. Continental Europe was being ravaged by warfare. So, it is possible that Baxter was stationed in Glasgow on military service.
Military Lodges were common within the British Army and were issued with Travelling Warrants or Charters entitling them to hold meetings and admit candidates in the locations to which their regiments were posted. The text of the Certificate drawn up for Brother Dr Baxter for is set out below: “Glasgow 13th January 1798 We the Master Wardens …………..of the Glasgow St Mungo Lodge No 28(2) on the registry of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Do Certify and attest that our true and beloved Br. Alexander Baxter was by us regularly entered as an Apprentice Mason and has given us sufficient satisfaction of his zeal and firm attachment to the Craft.
“We therefore recommend to all Regular Lodges of True and accepted masons under the Canopy of Heaven to whom he may present himself to admit and secure him as such. We prompting to do so, to whatever Brother as may hereafter so commended to us _______Given under our hands and Seal in Regular Lodge assembled day and above written.
“John Campbell Secy, John Gardner Master, William Stuart Sen. Warden, James Lapsley Jun. Warden.”
Baxter left St Helena in 1819. He had never attended Napoleon in his professional capacity but had met him as a private individual on several occasions. It was Baxter who gave Lowe verbal reports on Napoleon’s health.While on St Helena Napoleon had a wisdom tooth extracted. In a report dated 19 November 1817 about the treatment Baxter, who by now is described as “the Head of the medical establishment in St Helena”, wrote “Napoleon Bonaparte has suffered a good deal from a toothache on the night of the 15th.
“And, in consequence, was at last induced to permit Mr O’Meara to extract dens sapientice of the right side of the jaw.
“This is the first surgical operation that has ever been performed upon his body.”
It was suggested at the time that the dental problem was caused “by an indulgence in liquorice.” Baxter noted: “The instrument used initially in the procedure caused vomiting and thereafter pliers were used to extract the tooth.”