In an era when very few women managed to break glass ceilings, Elsie Inglis shot through them. Passionate, stubborn and sometimes short-tempered, she brought medical care to the front lines, where it was desperately needed, and opened the way for many women to play active roles in providing it.
She was born in the hill station of Naini Tal in India, the daughter of a civil servant with the East India Company. Her parents, unusually for their generation, placed great importance on her education, believing she had as much right to knowledge as a boy.
In 1886, she enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women but, dissatisfied with teaching practices there, she and her two sisters established a breakaway medical college. She completed her training under Sir William McEwan at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and qualified, at the age of 28, with both the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. She worked at first in Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s pioneering New Hospital for Women in London and then at the Rotunda, a leading maternity hospital in Dublin.
Appalled by the standards of medical care offered to female patients, she returned to Edinburgh to establish her own medical practice and maternity hospital with a former classmate – often treating treated needy patients for free and paying for their recuperation at the seaside. Meanwhile, she maintained a consultant post at the Brunstfield Hospital for women and in 1911 the two hospitals were amalgamated under her directorship.
For Elsie, women’s health and political rights were closely entwined and she became involved with the suffragist movement. After witnessing a drunken man kick his sick wife out of their home, she wrote:
‘He ought to have been horsewhipped, and when I have the vote I shall vote that all men who turn their wives and families out of doors . . . shall be horsewhipped. And if they make the excuse that they were tipsy, I should give them double.’
She worked closely with the suffragist Millicent Fawcett and played a key role in the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies (SFWSS), acting as honorary secretary from 1906-1914. Elsie was probably lesbian, and had a long relationship with fellow surgeon Flora Murray.
When war broke out in 1914, Elsie and others at SFWSS developed the idea of bringing female medical units to the front lines through the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH).
She wrote to Millicent Fawcett: ‘I cannot think of anything more calculated to bring home to men the fact that women can help – intelligently – in any kind of work. So much of our work is done where they cannot see it. They’ll see every bit of this.’
She offered the services of SWH to the War Office but was told: ‘My good lady, go home and sit still.’ The Scottish Red Cross likewise denied her request for help with fundraising. Its head, Sir George Beastson, replied that the Red Cross was in the hands of the War Office and that he could have ‘nothing to say to a hospital staffed by women.’
Entirely undaunted, she used £100 of her own money to seed-fund the SWH and launched a successful fundraising campaign with the support of SFWSS, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the American Red Cross.
Other countries eagerly accepted the SWH’s offer of medical services, and Britain eventually followed suit. By the end of the war, 14 hospitals had been established in six different countries, with over 1,000 women working as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, cooks and orderlies. Elsie and her colleagues worked to improve conditions in medical facilities by implementing rigorous hygiene practices, ensuring that despite rampant disease, overcrowding and awful injuries, their hospitals had lower mortality rates than their British Army counterparts.
Elsie headed up the 1st Serbian unit as Chief Medical Officer. During the Great Serbian Retreat of 1915, she refused to leave her patients behind. She remained at a field hospital in Krushevatz, where she was captured by German and Austrian forces and held as a prisoner of war. She fought every point with her captors, refusing to be treated unfairly. She and her colleagues were eventually repatriated with the help of the American and British governments.
On her return to Britain in 1916, she became the first woman to receive the Serbian Order of the White Eagle, awarded by Crown Prince Alexander in a ceremony in London. Her care for the Serbian people in their extreme need won her their love and respect in return and she became a sort of national hero for her efforts on their behalf.
Restless to continue her work, Elsie began fundraising in order to set up more SWH units in Russia. She and her team, which included Evelina Haverfield, arrived in 1917. There she worked on the Dobrudja Front and fought hard to ensure the safety of two Serbian divisions which had been captured by the Russian army and were being prevented from returning home.
As Russia was plunged into revolution, the SWH team was withdrawn from the country and they sailed from Archangel through submarine-infested waters. By this time, Elsie had been ill for some time with cancer. She died in the Station Hotel in Newcastle on November 26, 1917, a day after landing in Britain.
It is clear from her actions that Elsie was an incredibly strong and ambitious woman with a passion for helping people, a trait that has earned her immense respect – both for promoting the rights of women in medicine and all other walks of life, and for helping so many people during the course of the war. Her life and work have been commemorated in the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital, built in Edinburgh in 1925 (now closed), in a series of £50 bank notes issued in 2009 and in Serbia, where a memorial fountain was built in Mladenovac in honour of Elsie and her SWH colleagues. Serbians still lay tributes there every year.
Words and research by Gemma Close