Elsie Inglis: Health pioneer and suffrage campaigner who refused to stay home and sit still – Rab McNeil’s Scottish Icons

ELSIE Inglis was the first woman to be awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle. The tale of how that country’s highest award came to be presented to a Scotswoman is an inspiring one. It’s a story in which a woman who could have lived a privileged existence devoted her life to helping others less fortunate. It’s a story of someone who combined passionate campaigning for women’s rights with a stiff under lip when helping her country in war.

One of nine children, Eliza Maud Inglis was born on 16 August 1864 in Naini Tal, in the Himalayan foothills of India. Her father John, whom she loved dearly, was Chief Commissioner of Oudh, a princely state in North India. He might have progressed further in his career, had he not objected to Lord Lytton’s brutal approach in Afghanistan.

Of a progressive and liberal disposition, John Inglis encouraged native economic initiatives and female education. The latter extended to his own daughter, whom he had educated in India – unusual at this time of peak Raj. Medical interest ran in the family: she was cousin to the obstetrician Sir Henry Simson, who delivered the Queen and Princess Margaret. When Elsie was a bairn, she and her sister Eva had 40 dolls which she treated for measles, having painted them with red spots.

After her father retired, the family lived in Tasmania for two years, before returning in 1878 to Edinburgh, where Elsie attended the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Women. Here, she showed early signs of a campaigning spirit by successfully lobbying for the private schoolgirls to have public access to the private gardens in Charlotte Square.

After attending finishing school in Paris, she came home to nurse her mother through her final illness, scarlet fever. In 1886, Sophia Jex-Blake opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, and Inglis began her medical training there. In 1889, students rebelled against Dr Jex-Blake’s inflexible methods, and supported by her father and his friend from India, Sir William Muir – principal of Edinburgh University – Elsie established the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women.

All this while still learning. After studying for 18 months with Sir William Macewen at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Elsie obtained a tripe qualification which enabled licensing of those unable to gain entrance to university medical school, which at that time meant women among others. (Her final qualifications were earned in 1899 from Edinburgh University, after it opened its medical courses to women).

Her first position was at the pioneering New Hospital for Women, in London, followed by an obstetrics post at Dublin’s Rotunda maternity hospital (“for the relief of poor, lying-in women”).

Returning to Edinburgh in 1894, she set up in general practice with Jessie MacLaren MacGregor, later graduating to a cottage hospital and maternity unit, specialising in treatment for the poor. Elsie often waived her fees, particularly where children were involved, and would even pay for patients to recuperate by the sea.

From the first, she’d been appalled at conditions for female patients. This, and her own experiences with the male-dominated medical establishment, led to wider concerns for women’s position in society and so, not unnaturally, she became a passionate campaigner for women’s suffrage, speaking at events across Britain.

Fellow suffragist Sarah Mair described her thus: “In outward appearance Dr Inglis was no Amazon, but just a woman of gentle breeding, courteous, sweet-voiced, somewhat short of stature, alert, and with the eyes of a seer, blue-grey and clear, looking forth from under a brow wide and high, with soft brown hair brushed loosely back; with lips often parted in a radiant smile … but … which were at times firmly closed with a fixity of purpose such as would warn off unwarrantable opposition or objections from less bold workers.”

She was good at her job. Colleagues found her “quiet, calm, and collected, and never at a loss, skilful in her manipulations, and able to cope with any emergency”.

In 1914, a national emergency broke out. Inglis was nearly 50, but duty called – and was initially denied by the military and medical establishment. Setting up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) for Foreign Service, funded initially with her own money and then by the suffrage movement, the head of the Red Cross said it had “nothing to say to a hospital staffed by women”. The War Office advised: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

But Elsie Inglis was never one for sitting still. The French and the Serbs welcomed her initiative, and the first SWH unit set off for France in November 1914, with a second heading to Serbia in January 1915. The Serbian hospital, where Inglis served, was struck severely by typhus, losing four staff, including Louisa Jordan, after whom the temporary coronavirus hospital in Glasgow was named in 2020.

In autumn 1915, Inglis’ hospital was taken over by the Germans. Once, bombarded while crossing from one building to another, Elsie remarked to a nurse: “We are having some experiences, aren’t we?” She was interned until February 1916.

Back in Britain, she began organising a hospital team to help Serbs and other soldiers in Russia. By this time, it’s thought she knew she was dying of bowel cancer. Undaunted, she and her unit arrived in Archangel in September 1916, where Russian soldiers gave her a rousing welcome, lifting her up and parading her around. She recalled: “I did think the British Empire would stand by me, but he [the Consul] would do nothing but laugh!” An Odessa newspaper described the Scottish unit as “healthy manly women”.

Alas, not healthy enough. Elsie finally collapsed and had to return to Britain, where she died after just 24 hours in Newcastle on 26 November 1917. Her body lay in state at St Giles Cathedral, in Edinburgh. Her funeral was attended by British and Serbian royalty. Winston Churchill said she and her nurses would “shine in history”.

In 2015, the British residence in Belgrade was renamed Elsie Inglis House. At a ceremony attended by the president of Serbia, UK ambassador Denis Keefe said: “In Scotland she became a doctor, in Serbia she became a saint.”

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992