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Significant Scots
Dr Elsie Inglis


In the days when Mary Slessor was going through her early training in missionary work – about 1878 – there was living in a comfortable home in Edinburgh a girl of fourteen years, Elsie Inglis. She and her youngest sister, Eva, had lately come from India with their parents, staying for a time in Tasmania on their way home. The two sisters, therefore, were new to the mists and rain of ‘Auld Reekie’, their memories being full of distant visions of mighty mountains, or the green beauty of that southern island which suggests to Englishmen the scenery of Devonshire.

The quiet dignity of a girls’ school in Charlotte Square – a square well known for its ‘select’ inhabitants—must have struck these girls as dull beyond anything in their experience; and as to the square garden, where at least there was space for games, why could not the schoolgirls use it? This question was mooted by Elsie Inglis to the very directors of the school; no one, so far, had dared to think of such a thing. She was told that if she could get the personal consent of every one of the householders in the square, the thing could be done. Then Elsie Inglis, with one courageous companion, went round to every house and asked the consent of the owner; she met with no refusal, and henceforward, at certain arranged hours, the girls of the ‘Charlotte Square Institution’ were allowed to play in the gardens of that ‘grim palisaded square.’

To her companions, this incident showed Elsie Inglis as almost heroically brave. It showed, indeed, a purposeful spirit, clear-sighted in seeing an object worth making for, and undaunted by difficulties.

School-days over, Elsie was full of plans for the life opening out to her. Those were the days—the eighties of last century— when women were ardently working and hoping for fuller opportunities of education, of professional training and careers, and even for the suffrage which should give them complete citizenship.

Elsie Inglis determined to become a doctor of medicine. And though, for some years, women had been admitted to the degree of doctor of medicine, there were still many difficulties in their way: classes of men and women together were not allowed, nor practical work in the same wards; authorities were often hostile to their admittance, and higher fees were charged for their instruction. It was good for Elsie Inglis that she had the entire support of her large-minded father; he ‘backed’ her and encouraged her through every difficulty. It so happened that Elsie and her father had always been special friends; he was a large-hearted man, full of love for his numerous children, but partly from circumstances, and partly from natural sympathies, this youngest child but one—Elsie, the intelligent, the independent-minded—had become his chief companion. Especially was this so after the mother’s death—such a wise, good mother—which occurred when Elsie was about nineteen; as one of her sisters said, ‘From that day Elsie shouldered all father’s burdens.’ And he in return gave her his fullest support and sympathy in her work.

By the year 1892 Elsie Inglis was qualified as a doctor; she then left home to get experience as house-surgeon at the ‘New Hospital for Women’ in the Euston Road, London. This hospital, founded by the first English woman doctor, Mrs. Garrett Anderson, has only women on its medical staff, and therefore was in the forefront of progress in all that concerned women who were interested in medicine.

And Dr. Inglis was not merely a professional woman; she might have said with Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi, ‘This world’s no blot for us, nor blank: it means intensely and means good; To find its meaning is my meat and drink.’

She realized, specially from her medical experiences, that women often spoil their health and even their working capacity by too much absorption in work, without recreation. Therefore, her letters to her father from her London post tell of dances and theatres, and expeditions about the great city side by side with hospital gossip, this also full of jokes. For instance: ‘Lovely weather here; I’ve been prescribing sunshine, sunshine, sunshine for all the patients. There are only two balconies on each floor, and Nurse Rose is reported to have said that she supposed I wanted the patients hung out over the railings, as otherwise there would not be room.’ And in the same letter: ‘The dance was awfully nice; I danced every dance: there was a lovely floor and lovely music....We had an operation this morning, so, you see, dances don’t interfere with the serious business of life.’

* * * * * *

Her next bit of experience was in a well-known hospital in Dublin, the Rotunda. From that she wrote to her father humourous accounts of quaint Irish ways and words. When an old woman, having sent for a doctor, was faced by Dr. Inglis, she said, ‘Deed, ye’re no doctor; ye’re just a wumman.’ ‘She had come for Dr. B. whom she said she had known before he was born!’

Early in 1894 Dr. Inglis returned to her Edinburgh home, a shadowed home-coming, for she found her beloved father visibly failing in health, and even she did not see how rapidly. In a month after her return he had passed away, and she was writing to a brother abroad: ‘He always said that he did not believe that death was the stopping-place, but that one would go on growing and learning through all eternity. God bless him in his onward journey. I simply cannot imagine life without him.’

It was specially a loss to Dr. Inglis at this time because, in addition to her medical work, she was beginning now to work for the cause, so burning in those days, of women’s suffrage, that is, the question whether women should have the Parliamentary vote.

Nothing was more helpful to women taking up that cause than the support of able and prominent men, such as Mr. Inglis had been.

Still, few women were better fitted to stand alone than Elsie Inglis. With her moral courage, and her independence of mind, she influenced others powerfully so that she soon became a leader of the suffrage cause not only in Edinburgh but in Scotland generally.

And the facts which more than all else fired her feelings and her will were daily before her in medical work among the poorest women; the fact that many laws—and all ‘man-made’—bore specially hardly upon married women. For instance, the law that no wife could undergo an operation without her husband’s consent, a frightful injustice! Dr. Elsie used to quote a case she knew, where a husband refused his consent to an operation, and thus left his wife to a lingering and suffering death. There were many such cases and through all else the general feeling that women were somehow ‘outside the law’, and therefore could be treated anyhow.

So Dr. Inglis spoke and wrote and organized without intermission for the gaining of ‘Women’s Votes’, but always she advocated peaceful methods: she was strongly opposed to the attempt to gain lawful privileges by unlawful means.

After her father’s death, Dr. Inglis began her practice as a doctor in Edinburgh; she and a friend set up house together, living in happy partnership, united, in spite of many differences of opinion; only the large-minded can do that.

Dr. Inglis always gave herself with special sympathy to the help of her poorer patients, although she had also many among the rich. For instance, seeing the need of far more accommodation for poor women than the public hospitals could provide, she worked out a scheme for a Maternity Home in a very poor district. This was opened in 1904 under the name of the Hospice, and succeeded so well that after a few years it had become one of the few centres then in Scotland for the training of women students of medicine in the special needs of women. From that centre there also arose a children’s clinic, a ward for special cases, and provision for district nurses to visit patients in their homes. All these things are nowadays but commonplaces; clinics and district-nurses are the well-known health-machinery, so to speak, of every town, and every district of large towns, but in the early days of this century they arose only as the result of pioneer work, and generally the pioneer work of women.

So, if we walk along the Edinburgh High Street in imagination, as we have done before, we shall see very different things from those of past centuries. No longer will our eyes fall on armed noblemen, or Highland gentlemen in kilt and bonnet, no longer in late afternoons shall, we watch great ladies in hooped petticoats and with powdered hair, leaving their sedan-chairs to attend dances or card parties in those high stone-built houses. For now these same stone-built houses, in spite of their beautiful interiors, large rooms, painted ceilings, and carved mantelpieces, have become the over-crowded ‘rookeries’ of the very poor.

The richer folk have moved away from the picturesque, but inconvenient buildings, of the sixteenth and later centuries, to brighter modern dwellings on the west and south of the city. And as the rich moved away, the poorer took their places, moving from even narrower and darker houses, in yet older districts. And the surroundings of the High Street and the Canongate are true slums now; ‘you may turn away from those thoroughfares, even on a summer-day to see people disappearing into entries of impenetrable darkness to live in rooms where it is always night.’

If, however, we wait and watch a while, we may see a more hopeful sight—the slight figure of a woman whose face is bright and purposeful—whose fair hair gives a touch of sunshine to her presence, and whose firm quick step, as she passes from one dark entry to another, suggests that she is occupied with some helpful work. There were endless stories told among the poor about Dr. Inglis, of her skill and her kindness, her interest in every detail of their lives, because, as she so fully recognized, it was not merely for their illness that a doctor was needed, but often to advise where ‘prevention, better than cure,’ could be brought about through sensible ways of life. Thus, she wrote to one of her richer patients, ‘I want you never to miss, or delay meals; to go to bed reasonably early and to take an interest in outside things.’ And if a child was ill and died, her sympathy with the mother in her loss was as fully given as if she herself had known such losses.

Her own home was always a centre of bright social life; she had many friends and relatives in Edinburgh; her nieces and nephews looked on her as the best possible friend and comrade. She did not allow her own many-sided busy life to absorb her energies wholly. Her evenings were generally times of leisure, and her holidays largely spent with the young folks whom she loved.

Elsie Inglis was thus leading the kind of life which was fitting her, unconsciously, to play a hard and heroic part in one of the greatest crises of the history of the world.

* * * * * *

When the European War broke out in 1914, the way of duty for most men, that is, for men of military age and strength, was clear; for women, not so clear. In all past ages, women have helped magnificently through times of war; they have nursed; and worked in the fields, backed up the fighters in every way; but the very high organization of all departments of work in our modern days makes it more difficult than of old for interchanges of work to be profitably made.

Thus, very soon after that terrible week beginning on August 4th, 1914, a great meeting of women was summoned in London, and the leaders of the Suffrage movement strongly appealed to those present not to give up their peace-time work: ‘Go on with your work till you know you can help elsewhere.’ Nothing wiser or more helpful could have been said.

But where the work of doctoring and nursing was concerned, duty seemed clear even for women; their services were needed.

Unfortunately, the authorities at the War Office refused to allow women-doctors to co-operate with the Royal Army Medical Corps, or even to take out hospital units of their own to serve on our own ‘Fronts.’ Dr. Inglis was, as we may imagine, foremost in demanding leave to do this; she could see the probability—or certainty, rather---of appalling need on every ‘Front’; but when she approached the English authorities, an official said to her, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still.’ (!!)

* * * * * *

Difficulties acted like spurs to Elsie Inglis; they only stimulated her brain and will-power. ‘If the English Government will not have us, let us offer ourselves to other Allied Governments; the need is pressing everywhere’: so she spoke to her fellow-workers.

Before long the organization known as the ‘Scottish Women’s Hospitals’ took shape, and its first hospital was opened in France, under the French Red Cross, at the Abbaye de Royaumont, before the close of 1914.

Dr. Inglis’ letters after visiting this hospital are full of picturesque touches: for instance:

‘You’ve no idea of the conditions to which the units came out here, and they have behaved like perfect bricks. . . . There were no fires, no hot water, no furniture, no blankets. . . .The units have scrubbed out the whole place, put up beds, stuffed mattresses, etc., etc. The wards are perfect now. And when Madame came she said, "What it is to belong to a practical nation!"

On her way back through Paris, Dr. Inglis had an interesting little experience. Sitting alone in a corner of the cathedral of Notre Dame, she suddenly felt as if there were a living presence behind her; when she rose to leave the church, she saw for the first time that she had been sitting just in front of the statue of Joan of Arc. ‘I should like to know what Joan wanted to say to me’, was her comment afterwards.

* * * * * *

As the awful days passed, there rose need of more medical help on several Fronts farther away than France. Happily, our Foreign Office and our Admiralty departments were willing to forward the work of the S.W.H., for British subjects could not wisely work abroad, exposed to war-time dangers, without the countenance of their own Government. The little country of Serbia (once called Servia) had been overrun by the Austrian armies and left stricken with an awful epidemic of typhus fever raging among its tens of thousands of prisoners and wounded men. To this country one unit of the S.W.H. went out early in 1915, under Dr. Soltau, and when she broke down with diphtheria, Dr. Inglis, herself, took charge.

Though there were other units at work, one under the Red Cross, and one under Lady Paget, there was a constant appeal for more and more doctors, nurses, equipment. For three months the frightful epidemic raged.

Here are some pictures of experiences in Serbia during the late autumn of 1915:

‘These poor little people (Serbians), you cannot imagine anything more miserable than they are. They have been fighting for years for their independence, and now, it all seems to end. I went into Craiova yesterday in the car. . . .The road was crowded with refugees, all their goods piled on their rickety ox-wagons, little children on the top. . . .The bridges are down, and trucks standing anywhere. . . .There’ll be famine soon, as well as cold in this corner of the world.’

Then, the unit were taken prisoners and had to work under the orders of Austro-German authorities. They had to take a journey in horse-boxes, and later, to lie on the floor of the station at Belgrade, ‘eight sentries and all their charges lying on the floor together’, an officer guarding the door.

Later Dr. Inglis describes the condition of a hospital, ‘when we arrived’:

‘The hospital compound was a truly terrible place, sights and smells beyond description. We dug rubbish into the ground, built incinerators, and cleaned, and cleaned, and cleaned. That’s an Englishman’s job all over the world. Our three untrained English girl orderlies took to it like ducks to water . . . and they did it magnificently.’

But there were beautiful natural things amid all this misery; ‘Never shall we forget the beauty of the sunrises, and the glory of the sunsets, with cool clear sunlit days between, and wonderful starlit nights.’

There was terrible overcrowding in these hospitals under foreign occupation, for instance; ‘Hospital space designed for 400 beds had to deal with 900, and later with 1200, often 3 men to 2 beds, and mattresses on the floor.’

In February 1916 that unit was sent home, but Dr. Inglis ‘never forgot the tragedy of Serbia’, and worked always to get more help sent to the people she loved.

In the autumn of that year, 1916, Dr. Inglis went out with a fresh unit to the Russo-Roumanian Front, where another section of Serbs, the Jugoslavs, were fighting. Her letters about their long journey, first by transport through the Baltic, then by land through Russia, are amusing. On board, there were all sorts of amusements organized by the younger members of the unit, dances, fancy dress, obstacle races, and other competitions. ‘I do love to see the girls enjoying themselves’, she writes home, ‘they’ll have plenty of hard work later on.’

By the end of September, they had reached Odessa, via Moscow, and were ‘off to our Division, with only two little field hospitals.’ But very soon, they found themselves in the midst of a most awful retreat, the second retreat experienced by Dr. Inglis.

‘You cannot imagine’, she writes to her sister, ‘what war is, just behind the lines, and in a retreat. . . . We arrived at Braila to find 11,000 wounded, and only one of them a surgeon. The wounded had overflowed into empty houses, and were lying about in their uniforms, their wounds not dressed for 4 or 5 days.’. . .‘So we just turned up our sleeves, and went in!’

Only doctors and nurses know what that means!

At Reni, on the Danube, where the river crosses the frontier of Roumania and Russia, the unit stayed for eight months; this seems to have been for all of them a happy and restful time in spite of the ordinary hospital routine. Dr. Elsie writes:

‘We are never absolutely without wood, as a Cossack regiment sends a squad of men across the Danube to cut it for us. .The Danube is frozen right across, the first time for seven years. . . . We have plenty of sun and it will soon be quite hot.’

Again, ‘A Greek priest came yesterday to bless the hospital, and we have put up icons (images) in each of the four wards. . . I have bought little lamps to burn in front of the icons as they always have them. . . .We are going to have the evening hymn sung every evening at 6 o’clock.’

And then follows a good jest:

‘There is rivalry, I hear, between the Armoured Car men and the British Red Cross men about the capabilities of the different Sisters. (We, it seems, belong to the Armoured Car men.) A B.R.C. man said, ‘Our Sisters are so smart that they get a man on to the operating table 5 mins. after the first one went off.’ ‘That’s nothing’, said an Armoured Car man, ‘the Scottish Sisters get the second man on before the first one goes off.’

Again Dr. Inglis writes: We had a very interesting Easter. We learnt both the Russian greeting and its answer: ‘Christ is risen’.—‘He is risen indeed’; so we made our greetings in Russian fashion. We are very happy here, except that we are idle. Our patients are delightful, and the hospital is in good order. The Steppe is a fascinating place to wander over, little valleys with villages hidden away in them, and flowers. We have been riding our transport horses, rather rough, but quite nice and gentle. We ride astride, of course.’

In the autumn the unit had to return to England. The Serbs were out of Roumania, and the changes consequent on the Russian revolution had affected all doings on the Eastern European Front.

They travelled, as before, via Moscow and Archangel, and then by sea to England. But the pleasure of facing homewards was dimmed by the realization that Dr. Inglis was gravely ill. She tried to make light of her suffering, insisted on getting up each day; or, when lying down, in making plans for a fresh expedition abroad. Yet she could not walk for five minutes without exhaustion, and none who knew her could be blind to the great change in her appearance and her powers.

As the ship neared Newcastle, Dr. Inglis went up on deck to say good-bye to the Serbian officers who had accompanied the party to England.

‘She stood unsupported, her face ashen, drawn like a mask, dressed in her worn uniform coat with the faded ribbons. As the officers kissed her hand and thanked her, she said a few words to each.’

After this, the end came swiftly. The unit went together to a hotel at Newcastle, where Dr. Inglis, entirely exhausted, lay waiting to see the relatives who were sent for. She lay there for about thirty-six hours, able to talk and send messages to friends and to colleagues in her work; her mind entirely clear, her physical powers ebbing rapidly; she was very brave and quiet. ‘It will be grand to start a new job over there’, she said to her niece, ‘although there are two or three jobs here I should like to have finished first.’

On the night of Monday, November 26th, 1917, she passed very peacefully to the unseen land.

* * * * * *

‘Her people brought her back to the city of her fathers. . .Over her hung the torn banners of Scotland’s history. On her coffin, as she lay looking to the east in high St Giles’, were placed the flags of Great Britain and Serbia.’ After the funeral service, the coffin was placed on a gun-carriage.

‘Across the water of Leith the long procession wound its way. Within sight of the grave it was granted to her grateful brethren, the representatives of the Serbian nation, to carry her coffin, and lower it to the place where the mortal in her was to lie in its last rest.’

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