“In Scotland they made her a Doctor, In Serbia we would have made her a Saint.” – Serbian saying.
Elsie Inglis was born in Naini Tal, India to Scottish parents. Her father was employed by the East India Company and the family returned to Edinburgh in 1878 when Elsie was 14. Elsie’s parents believed, unusual for this time, that both boys and girls should have equal access to education and were supportive of Elsie’s decision to study medicine. Women won the right to obtain medical degrees in 1876 and when the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women was opened in 1886 Elsie decided to study there, graduating in 1892.
Elsie focussed on assisting those most in need of medical care, mainly the poor of Edinburgh and in particular women. In 1894 she established the ‘Nursing Home for Working Women’ (later renamed the hospice) in George Square with her colleague Dr Jessie MacGregor. The site was moved in 1904 to the High Street in the city centre to allow for greater access for women in need.
Her work in the community made her more aware of the greater need for rights for women. Elsie became an active suffragette and was both Honorary Secretary of Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage and then Honorary Secretary for the Scottish Federation of Suffrage Societies.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Elsie, like many other women, believed her skills could be of assistance to the war effort. She offered her help and her ideas for mobile hospital units, staffed entirely by women, to the War Office only to be told “My good lady, go home and sit still”.
Elsie…did not. She set to work with the support of suffrage societies across Britain to raise funds for the newly created Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH). Elsie travelled Britain giving talks to Suffrage Societies to help raise the much needed funds for the units, criticizing the response she received from the War Office by exclaiming “The need is there, and too terrible to allow haggling about who does the work.”
Writing to ambassadors of Belgium, France and Russia, Elsie received a much more positive response to the SWH and with the funds raised from suffrage societies across the country; the first medical Unit set up was the 200 bed Abbaye de Royaumont Hospital in France.
Elsie finally got the chance to work in the field and accompanied an SWH unit to Serbia in 1915. Due to the advances of Austrian and German forces in October 1915, Serbian officials advised that the units evacuate. Elsie and several other members of her staff refused to evacuate and continued to tend the wounded in their care.
Elsie and her team, though moved to a smaller hospital and allowed to continue their work, were effectively Prisoners of War. All were repatriated back to Britain but they did not arrive in London until February 1916. Before their departure Elsie was asked to sign documentation by German authorities to confirm that she was treated well during her confinement. Elsie refused. Unbeknown to her, this was an attempt by the Germans to create good propaganda after the outcry caused by the execution of nurse Edith Cavell for alleged espionage some months before.
Upon her return to Britain, Elsie immediately started raising funds for a hospital in Russia and unperturbed by her recent POW status, travelled to Russia continuing to care for the sick and wounded. Elsie also encouraged members of her own family to play their part, with her three nieces Florence, Etta and Violet joining the SWH.
Poor health meant that Elsie had to return home, and sadly she passed away one day after her ship arrived at Newcastle upon Tyne on 26 November 1917. She lay in state at St Giles and is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.
Elsie would help to create four hospitals and sent 14 medical units to France, Serbia, Russia, Romania and Malta with over 1000 women working for the SWH. The work of Elsie and her sisters in the field during the First World War did much to prove that women were equally as capable as their male colleagues in the field of medicine. Not only famous in Britain, she received praise from the various countries she and the SWH served in during the War. She was much loved in Serbia and had become the first woman to receive the highest order of Serbia, The Order of the White Eagle, in 1916.
Written for Sheroes of History by Nicki Bray (@nicksbray on Twitter)
Find out more…
There are some fantastic websites and books where you can learn more about Elsie and the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospital below.
You can watch a film about a day in the life of a SWH field hospital here.
The British Embassy in Belgrade has released a series of stamps featuring the images of Elsie Inglis and five other British heroines of WW1. They also have a range of interesting education material on their Facebook page.
You can discover the memorials dedicated to Elsie both in Britain and abroad here.