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Elsie Inglis
Chapter III - 1864-1894

Elsie Inglis was born on August 16, 1864, in India. The wide plains of India, the "huddled hills" and valleys of the Himalayas, were the environment with which Nature surrounded her for the first twelve years of her life. Her childhood was a happy one, and the most perfect friendship existed between her and her father from her earliest days.

"All our childhood is full of remembrances of father. He never forgot our birthdays; however hot it was down in the scorched plains, when the day came round, if we were up in the hills, a large parcel would arrive from him. His very presence was joy and strength when he came to us at Naini Tal. What a remembrance there is of early breakfasts and early walks with him—the father and the three children! The table was spread in the verandah between six and seven. Father made three cups of cocoa, one for each of us, and then the glorious walk! The ponies followed behind, each with their attendant grooms, and two or three red-coated chaprassies, father stopping all along the road to talk to every native who wished to speak to him, while we three ran about, laughing and interested in everything. Then, at night, the shouting for him after we were in bed, and father's step bounding up the stair in Calcutta, or coming along the matted floor of our hill home. All order and quietness were flung to the winds while he said good-night to us.

"It was always understood that Elsie and he were special chums, but that never made any jealousy. Father was always just. The three cups of cocoa were always the same in quantity and quality. We got equal shares of his right and his left hand in our walks; but Elsie and he were comrades, inseparables from the day of her birth.

"In the background of our lives there was always the quiet, strong mother, whose eyes and smile live on through the years. Every morning before the breakfast and walk there were five minutes when we sat in front of her in a row on little chairs in her room and read the Scripture verses in turn, and then knelt in a straight, quiet row and repeated the prayers after her. Only once can I remember father being angry with any of us, and that was when one of us ventured to hesitate in instant obedience to some wish of hers. I still see the room in which it happened, and the thunder in his voice is with me still."

There was a constant change of scene during these years in India—Allahabad, Naini Tal, Calcutta, Simla, and Lucknow. After her father retired, two years in Australia visiting older brothers who had settled there, and then in 1878 home to the land of her fathers.

On the voyage home, when Elsie was about fourteen, her mother writes of her:

"Elsie has found occupation for herself in helping to nurse sick children and look after turbulent boys who trouble everybody on board, and a baby of seven months old is an especial favourite with her."

But through the changing scenes there was always growing and deepening the beautiful comradeship between father and daughter. The family settled in Edinburgh, and Elsie went to school to the Charlotte Square Institution, perhaps in those days the best school for girls in Edinburgh. In the history class taught by Mr. Hossack she was nearly always at the top.

Of her school life in Edinburgh a companion writes:

"I remember quite distinctly when the girls of 23, Charlotte Square were told that two girls from Tasmania were coming to the school, and a certain feeling of surprise that the said girls were just like ordinary mortals, though the big, earnest brows and the hair quaintly parted in the middle and done up in plaits fastened up at the back of the head were certainly not ordinary.

"A friend has the story of a question going round the class; she thinks Clive or Warren Hastings was the subject of the lesson, and the question was what one would do if a calumny were spread about one. 'Deny it,' one girl answered. 'Fight it,' another. Still the teacher went on asking. 'Live it down,' said Elsie. 'Right, Miss Inglis.' My friend writes: 'The question I cannot remember; it was the bright, confident smile with the answer, and Mr. Hossack's delighted wave to the top of the class that abides in my memory.'

"I always think a very characteristic story of Elsie is her asking that the school might have permission to play in Charlotte Square Gardens. In those days no one thought of providing fresh-air exercise for girls except by walks, and tennis was just coming in. Elsie had the courage (to us schoolgirls it seemed extraordinary courage) to confront the three Directors of the school, and ask if we might be allowed to play in the gardens of the Square. The three Directors together were to us the most formidable and awe-inspiring body, though separately they were amiable and estimable men!

"The answer was, we might play in the gardens if the residents of the Square would give their consent, and the heroic Elsie, with, I think, one other girl, actually went round to each house in the Square and asked consent of the owner. In those days the inhabitants of Charlotte Square were very select and exclusive indeed, and we all felt it was a brave thing to do. Elsie gained her point, and the girls played at certain hours in the Square till a regular playing-field was arranged.... Elsie's companion or companions in this first adventure to influence those in authority have been spoken of as 'her first Unit.'"

When she was eighteen she went for a year to Paris with six other girls, in charge of Miss Gordon Brown. She came home again shortly before her mother's death in January, 1885. Henceforth she was her father's constant companion. They took long walks together, talked on every subject, and enjoyed many humorous episodes together. On one point only they disagreed—Home Rule for Ireland: she for it, he against.

During the nine years from 1885 to her father's death in 1894, she began and completed her medical studies with his full approval. The great fight for the opening of the door for women to study medicine had been fought and won earlier by Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, Dr. Garrett Anderson, and others. But though the door was open, there was still much opposition to be encountered and a certain amount of persecution to be borne when the women of Dr. Inglis's time ventured to enter the halls of medical learning.

Along the pathway made easy for them by these women of the past, hundreds of young women are to-day entering the medical profession. As we look at them we realize that in their hands, to a very large extent, lies the solving of the acutest problem of our race—the relation of the sexes. Will they fail us? Will they be content with a solution along lines that can only be called a second best? When we remember the clear-brained women in whose steps they follow, who opened the medical world for them, and whose spirits will for ever overshadow the women who walk in it, we know they will not fail us.

Elsie Inglis pursued her medical studies in Edinburgh and Glasgow. After she qualified she was for six months House-Surgeon in the New Hospital for Women and Children in London, and then went to the Rotunda in Dublin for a few months' special study in midwifery.

She returned home in March, 1894, in time to be with her father during his last illness. Daily letters had passed between them whenever she was away from home. His outlook on life was so broad and tolerant, his judgment on men and affairs so sane and generous, his religion so vital, that with perfect truth she could say, as she did, at one of the biggest meetings she addressed after her return from Serbia: "If I have been able to do anything, I owe it all to my father."

After his death she started practice with Dr. Jessie Macgregor at 8, Walker Street, Edinburgh. It was a happy partnership for the few years it lasted, until for family reasons Dr. Macgregor left Scotland for America. Dr. Inglis stayed on in Walker Street, taking over Dr. Macgregor's practice. Then followed years of hard work and interests in many directions.

"If I have been able to do anything—whatever I am, whatever I have done—I owe it all to my Father."
Elsie Inglis, at a meeting held in the Criterion Theatre, London, April 5th, 1916

The Hospice for Women and Children in the High Street of Edinburgh was started. Her practice grew, and she became a keen suffragist. During these years also she evidently faced and solved her problems.

She was a woman capable of great friendships. During the twenty years of her professional life perhaps the three people who stood nearest to her were her sister, Mrs. Simson, and the Very Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Wallace Williamson. These friendships were a source of great strength and comfort to her.

We may fitly close this chapter by quoting descriptions of Dr. Inglis by two of her friends—Miss S. E. S. Mair, of Edinburgh, and Dr. Beatrice Russell:

"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, discovering small white teeth and regular, but lips which were at times firmly closed with a fixity of purpose such as would warn off unwarrantable opposition or objections from less bold workers. Those clear eyes had a peculiar power of withdrawing on rare occasions, as it were, behind a curtain when their owner desired to absent herself from discussion of points on which she preferred to give no opinion. It was no mere expression such as absent-mindedness might produce, but was, as she herself was aware, a voluntary action of withdrawal from all participation in what was going on. The discussion over, in a moment the blinds would be up and the soul looked forth through its clear windows with steady gaze. Whether the aural doors had been closed also there is no knowing."

"She was a keen politician—in the pre-war days a staunch supporter of the Liberal party, and in the years immediately preceding the war she devoted much of her time to work in connection with the Women's Suffrage movement. She was instrumental in organizing the Scottish Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies, and was Honorary Secretary of the Federation up to the time of her death. But the factor which most greatly contributed to her influence was the unselfishness of her work. She truly 'set the cause above renown' and loved 'the game beyond the prize.' She was always above the suspicion of working for ulterior motives or grinding a personal axe. It was ever the work, and not her own share in it, which concerned her, and no one was more generous in recognizing the work of others.

"To her friends Elsie Inglis is a vivid memory, yet it is not easy clearly to put in words the many sides of her character. In the care of her patients she was sympathetic, strong, and unsparing of herself; in public life she was a good speaker and a keen fighter; while as a woman and a friend she was a delightful mixture of sound good sense, quick temper, and warm-hearted impulsiveness—a combination of qualities which won her many devoted friends. A very marked feature of her character was an unusual degree of optimism which never failed her. Difficulties never existed for Dr. Inglis, and were barely so much as thought of in connection with any cause she might have at heart. This, with her clear head and strong common sense, made her a real driving power, and any scheme which had her interest always owed much to her ability to push things through."

In the following chapters the principal events in her life during these twenty years—1894 to 1914—will be dealt with in detail, before we arrive at the story of the last three years and of the "Going Forth."


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