Turbulent Scots: Elsie Inglis, 1864-1917

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. In this post I’m looking at Elsie Inglis, a doctor, suffragist, and champion of healthcare for women.

Elsie Inglis, 1864-1917 (Source: BBC News)

Despite being born in India and dying in Newcastle, Dr Elsie Inglis is perhaps one of the most well-respected women in Scottish history. After looking into her story, I can see why she was so admired! After qualifying as a doctor just before her 28th birthday, Elsie dedicated herself to improving women’s healthcare. On the outbreak of the First World War, she organised and led all-female medical teams in Serbia and Russia, becoming the first woman to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Serbia.

Elsie was born on 16th August 1864 in Naini Tal, India. She was one of 9 children, and her father was a magistrate in the Indian Civil Service. Her parents believed that women should be educated, and unusually for the time, Elsie started her education in India. She showed an interest in medicine from a young age, covering her dolls in spots so that she could cure them of measles. The family moved to Edinburgh when her father retired, and Elsie finished her education at the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Ladies and at a finishing school in Paris.

Elsie was very close to her father. She wanted to study medicine, but was reluctant to leave her father after the death of her mother in 1885. In 1887, Dr Sophia Jex-Blake opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, and Elsie was one of the first students at the School. Jex-Blake was a pioneer, having been one of the first 7 female students to start studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. However, her students found her too strict, and after two other students were expelled, Elsie and her father set up the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women. Elsie continued her studies there, qualifying as a doctor and surgeon in 1892, at a time when women still were not permitted to graduate from University medical schools.

Elsie was shocked by the poor quality of care that female patients received, and the lack of specialisation in issues that affected women. Her first job was at the New Hospital for Women in London, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (another pioneer, she was the first woman to qualify as a doctor and surgeon in Britain). She also worked at the Rotunda, a leading maternity hospital in Dublin. She returned to Edinburgh in 1894 to nurse her father. She also lectured in gynaecology and set up a medical practice with Jessie Maclaren Macgregor. The two women set up a small maternity hospital for poor women, which also had a midwifery training centre. In 1904, the hospital moved to larger premises on the Royal Mile and was renamed The Hospice. By this time the University of Edinburgh had also started allowing women to study medicine, and Elsie graduated in 1899.

For Elsie, the poor standards of medical care for women was intertwined with the fight for women’s suffrage. Opposed to the violent methods of the suffragettes, she became a leading member of the suffragist campaign in Scotland, serving as the secretary of the Edinburgh Society for Women’s Suffrage in the 1890s, and the secretary of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies from its formation in 1906 until 1914. She traveled Scotland speaking at pro-suffrage meetings, sometimes as many as 4 a week.

Elsie with her team from the Scottish Women’s Hospital that were captured in 1915 (Source: Imperial War Museum).

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Elsie was central to the foundation of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee. She was motivated not just by patriotism, but also by a desire to prove that women were skilled medical staff in fields other than gynaecology and paediatrics. Funded by the suffrage movement, the Committee’s goal was to provide relief hospitals for the war effort that were entirely staffed by women. The British War Office rejected the offer of help, but the French and Serbian government were not so prejudiced. Over the course of the war, the Scottish Women’s Hospital sent 14 units to Belgium, France, Serbia, Salonika, Romania, Malta, Corsica, Serbia and Russia. In the summer of 1915, Elsie led a team to Serbia. Not long after, the region was invaded by Austro-Hungarian and German Forces. Refusing to leave her patients, Elsie was captured. She was released and returned to Edinburgh the following year, where she campaigned for more aid to be sent to Serbia. In August 1916 she led a new team to help Serbian forces in Russia. She knew she had cancer before she left, and by the following autumn she could no longer perform surgery, although she continued to lead the unit. She refused to leave Russia until the Serbian forces did too. She eventually arrived back in Britain on the 26th of November 1917, but died that evening in a hotel in Newcastle.

Remnants of the maternity hospital named after Elsie can still be found in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh (Source: Hannah Awcock).

Elsie Inglis was a skilled and determined woman, who achieved a huge amount in her 53 years. Her funeral took place at St. Giles Cathedral, and was attended by representatives of the British and Serbian royal families. Considering women tend not to be memorialised, there have been quite a few tributes to Elsie over the last century. In 1922 a tablet was erected in St Giles in her memory. In 1925, The Hospice was replaced by the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital in Abbeyhill. It was closed in 1988, but some of the buildings still remain, and there is a small memorial in nearby Holyrood Park. There is a plaque marking the location of her pre-war surgery at 8 Walker Street, and in 2009 she was featured on the £50 note produced by the Clydesdale Bank. There is a memorial fountain dedicated to her in Mladenovac, Serbia, and her photo features on the plinth of the Millicent Garrett Fawcett statue in Westminster. Elsie Inglis was a truly remarkable women, who deserves all of this recognition, and more.

Sources and Further Reading

Leneman, Leah. “Inglis, Elsie Maud.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34101 (requires a subscription to access).

MacPherson, Hamish. “Greatest Scot? The Many Talents of Dr Elsie Inglis. The National. Last modified 5th May 2020, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://www.thenational.scot/news/18426143.greatest-scot-many-talents-dr-elsie-inglis/

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. “Elsie Inglis.” No date, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/college-history/elsie-inglis

Simkin, John. “Elsie Inglis. Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://spartacus-educational.com/Winglis.htm

Wikipedia. “Elsie Inglis.” Last modified 25th September 2021, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Inglis