Elsie Inglis, Scotland’s Florence Nightingale.
Inglis was born of Scots parents in India in 1864 a year
when the American Civil War was in full swing and President Lincoln
issues the conscription of 500.000 men for the US Civil War. Her father
John was a prominent Indian Civil Service Servant while her mother
Harriet had lived in England for seven years during the Indian Mutiny.
In a hill station at Naini Tal in the Himalayas Elsie was born and set the girl on the way to much travel and trials. There is a tale of future nursing abilities when she painted red spots over herself and her dolls. With her caring skills she reduced the spots by wiping them off gradually day by day.
John, her father retired for the Indian service in 1876 and took Elsie and her Sister Eva to Tasmania where they joined her two brothers who had settled there.
In 1878 and the family returned to their homeland Scotland to live in the capital Edinburgh. R.L Stevenson described the city at that time as having an interest in peoples hearts, and a place of distinction.
Her father sent her to Paris for one year to help complete and broaden her education. Sadly, on returning to Edinburgh her mother died from scarlet fever leaving Elsie to care for her father till he died and attend to house duties.
Elsie began her medical studies at Edinburgh University School for Women at a time when such activates were demanding and arduous. Two students were dismissed and this event triggered Elsie to find appropriate funds to start her own Medical College. She also studied at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1891 where the study of medicine by women was encouraged to a greater extent than Edinburgh. In the following year she passed a triple qualification. a signal of her determination and intellect.
As a doctor she moved to England to work as a house surgeon with the famous Elizabeth Garret Anderson who was appointed Dean of London School of Medicine for Women in 1883. Later Elsie returned to Edinburgh to institute a Maternity Hospital employing women only. In 1906 Elsie joined the NUWSS encouraging women’s suffrage, which had began as a group of women from the Kensington Society in 1866 that demanded political equality with men.
Later Dr Elsie Inglis again returned to Edinburgh to work with Dr Jessie MacGregor and advanced to became an M.B., c.m. in1899. Her work not only included the encouragement of women in the medical profession it extended to woman’s suffrage. She also founded a nursing home and a much needed maternity centre. In all Elsie was driven by the loss of her father to work unstintingly.
When the First World War began she volunteered woman’s medical units for the Western Front. This did not go down well with the War Office and was told "My good lady, go home and sit still," She considered the sum of £50,000 was required of the Scottish Women’s Hospital fund and was disappointed to receive only £200.
Elsie had no alternative than to sent women’s medical elements to France. From the first months of the war women became involved and by 1915 the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit founded a 200 bed utility at Royaumont Abbey founded by the King of France in 1228.
Along with her were Isobel Ross and Cicely Hamilton who’s father was a captain in the Gordon Highlanders and later wrote A Pageant of Great Women and with Ethel Smythe who wrote the March of Women. On a summer morning in 1915 Elsie was captured during an Austrian offensive. American Diplomats worked tirelessly along with the British for Elsie and her staff to be released.
Amazingly, Elsie’s 14 medical units were involved on the Western Front, Serbia, Salonika, Romania, Russia, Malta and Corsica. The London Woman’s Suffrage Society gave moral and monetary assistance for Elsie and eight staff to go to Russia.
Their vocation was to help Serbian soldiers, such became her reputation an official remarked that greatness of her country was due to women like her. Through the summer of 1915 typhus raged, the doctors and nurses faced mounting casualties and the dreaded disease that took three Women who were interned at Kraguievatz.
During the hardships in Russia and Serbia Elsie became dangerously ill and had to be sent home. On the Military transport vessel Elsie bade farewell to her Serbian staff. She stood a solitary figure in great pain in her worn uniform wearing her faded service ribbons.
In the city of Newcastle Dr Elsie Inglis succumbed to her illness (cancer) and died on the 26th November 1917. On the 29th of that month Elsie Maud Inlgis was buried at the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. Her coffin was resplendent with the flags of Britain and Serbia. Serbian officers lowered her into the Scottish earth.
Winston Churchill wrote Inglis and her nurses would shine through history.
A fitting epitaph to our Scottish Florence Nightingale.