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Elsie Inglis
Chapter IV - Her Medical Career

During the years from 1894 to 1914 the main stream in Elsie Inglis's life was her medical work. This was her profession, her means of livelihood; it was also the source from which she drew conclusions in various directions, which influenced her conduct in after-years, and it supplied the foundation and the scaffolding for the structure of her achievements at home and abroad.

The pursuit of her profession for twenty years in Edinburgh brought to her many experiences which roused new and wide interests, and which left their impress on her mind.

One who was a fellow-student writes of her classmate: "She impressed one immediately with her mental and physical sturdiness. She had an extremely pleasant face, with a finely moulded forehead, soft, kind, fearless, blue eyes, and a smile, when it came, like sunshine; with this her mouth and chin were firm and determined."

She was a student of the School of Medicine for Women in Edinburgh of which Dr. Jex-Blake was Dean—a fine woman of strong character, to whom, and to a small group of fellow-workers in England, women owe the opening of the door of the medical profession. As Dean, however, she may have erred in attempting an undue control over the students. To Elsie Inglis and some of her fellow-students this seemed to prejudice their liberty, and to frustrate an aim she always had in view, the recognition by the public of an equal footing on all grounds with men students. The difficulties became so great that Elsie Inglis at length left the Edinburgh school and continued her education at Glasgow, where at St. Margaret's College classes in medicine had recently been opened. A fellow-student writes: "Never very keenly interested in the purely scientific side of the curriculum, she had a masterly grasp of what was practical." She took her qualifying medical diploma in 1902.

After her return to Edinburgh she started a scheme and brought it to fruition with that fearlessness and ability which at a later period came to be expected from her, both by her friends and by the public. With the help of sympathetic lecturers and friends of The Women's Movement, she succeeded in establishing a second School of Medicine for Women in Edinburgh, with its headquarters at Minto House, a building which had been associated with the study of medicine since the days of Syme. It proved a successful venture. After the close of Dr. Jex-Blake's school a few years later, it was the only school for women students in Edinburgh, and continued to be so till the University opened its doors to them.

It was mainly due to Dr. Inglis's exertions that The Hospice was opened in the High Street of Edinburgh as a nursing home and maternity centre staffed by medical women. An account of it and of Dr. Inglis's work in connection with it is given in a later chapter.

She was appointed Joint-Surgeon to the Edinburgh Bruntsfield Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children, also staffed by women and one of the fruits of Dr. Jex-Blake's exertions. Here, again, Elsie Inglis's courage and energy made themselves felt. She desired a larger field for the usefulness of the institution, and proposed to enlarge the hospital to such an extent that its accommodation for patients should be doubled. A colleague writes: "Once again the number must be doubled, always with the same idea in view—i.e., to insure the possibilities for gaining experience for women doctors. Once again the committee was carried along on a wave of unprecedented effort to raise money. An eager band of volunteers was organized, among them some of her own students. Bazaars and entertainments were arranged, special appeals were issued, and the necessary money was found, and the alterations carried out. It was never part of Dr. Inglis's policy to wait till the money came in. She always played a bold game, and took risks which left the average person aghast, and in the end she invariably justified her action by accomplishing the task which she set herself, and, at times it must be owned, which she set an all too unwilling committee! But for that breezy and invincible faith and optimism the Scottish Women's Hospitals would never have taken shape in 1914."

Dr. Inglis's plea for the Units of the Scottish Women's Hospital was always that they might be sent "where the need was greatest." In these years of work before the war the same motive, to supply help where it was most needed, seems to have guided her private practice, for we read: "Dr. Inglis was perhaps seen at her best in her dispensary work, for she was truly the friend and the champion of the working woman, and especially of the mother in poor circumstances and struggling to bring up a large family. Morrison Street Dispensary and St. Anne's Dispensary were the centre of this work, and for years to come mothers will be found in this district who will relate how Dr. Inglis put at their service the best of her professional skill and, more than that, gave them unstintedly of her sympathy and understanding."

Dr. Wallace Williamson, of St. Giles's Cathedral, writing of her after her death, is conscious also of this impulse always manifesting itself in her to work where difficulties abounded. He points out: "Of her strictly professional career it may be truly said that her real attraction had been to work among the suffering poor.... She was seen at her best in hospice and dispensary, and in homes where poverty added keenness to pain. There she gave herself without reserve. Questions of professional rivalry or status of women slipped away in her large sympathy and helpfulness. Like a truly 'good physician,' she gave them from her own courage an uplift of spirit even more valuable than physical cure. She understood them and was their friend. To her they were not merely patients, but fellow-women. It was one of her great rewards that the poor folk to whom she gave of her best rose to her faith in them, whatever their privations or temptations. Her relations with them were remote from mere routine, and so distinctively human and real that her name is everywhere spoken with the note of personal loss. Had not the wider call come, this side of her work awaited the fulfilment of ever nobler dreams."

She was loved and appreciated as a doctor not only by her poorer patients, but by those whom she attended in all ranks of society.

Of her work as an operator and lecturer two of her colleagues say:

"It was a pleasure to see Dr. Inglis in the operating-theatre. She was quiet, calm, and collected, and never at a loss, skilful in her manipulations, and able to cope with any emergency."

"As a lecturer she proved herself clear and concise, and the level of her lectures never fell below that of the best established standards. Students were often heard to say that they owed to her a clear and a practical grasp of a subject which is inevitably one of the most important for women doctors."

Should it be asked what was the secret of her success in her work, the answer would not be difficult to find. A clear brain she had, but she had more. She had vision, for her life was based on a profound trust in God, and her vision was that of a follower of Christ, the vision of the kingdom of heaven upon earth. This was the true source of that remarkable optimism which carried her over difficulties deemed by others insurmountable. Once started in pursuit of an object, she was most reluctant to abandon it, and her gaze was so keenly fixed on the end in view that it must be admitted she was found by some to be "ruthless" in the way in which she pushed on one side any who seemed to her to be delaying or obstructing the fulfilment of her project. There was, however, never any selfish motive prompting her; the end was always a noble one, for she had an unselfish, generous nature. An intimate friend, well qualified to judge, herself at first prejudiced against her, writes:

"In everything she did that was always to me her most outstanding characteristic, her self-effacing and abounding generosity. Indeed, it was so characteristic of her that it was often misunderstood and her action was imputed to a desire for self-advertisement. A fellow-doctor told me that when she was working in one of the Edinburgh laboratories she heard men discussing something Dr. Inglis had undertaken, and, evidently finding her action quite incomprehensible, they concluded it was dictated by personal ambition. My friend turned on them in the most emphatic way: 'You were never more mistaken. The thought of self or self-interest never even entered Elsie Inglis's mind in anything she did or said.'" Again, another writes: "One recalls her generous appreciation of any good work done by other women, especially by younger women. Any attempt to strike out in a new line, any attempt to fill a post not previously occupied by a woman, received her unstinted admiration and warm support."

It was her delight to show hospitality to her friends, many of whom, especially women doctors and friends made in the Suffrage movement, stayed with her at her house in Walker Street, Edinburgh. But her hospitality did not end there. One doctor, whom we have already quoted, on arrival on a visit, found that only the day before Dr. Inglis had said good-bye to a party of guests, a woman with five children, a patient badly in need of rest, who had the misfortune to have an unhappy home, and was without any relatives to help her. Dr. Inglis's relations with her poor patients have been already referred to. Not only did she give them all she could in the way of professional attention and skill, but her generosity to them was unbounded. "I had a patient," writes a doctor, "very ill with pulmonary tuberculosis. She was to go to a sanatorium, and her widowed mother was quite unable to provide the rather ample outfit demanded. Dr. Inglis gave me everything for her, down to umbrella and goloshes."

Naturally her devotion was returned, though in one case which is recorded Dr. Inglis's care met with resentment at first. A woman who was expecting a baby—her ninth—applied at a dispensary where Dr. Inglis happened to be in charge. Her advice was distasteful to the patient, who tried another dispensary, only to meet again with the same advice, again from a woman member of the profession. A third dispensary brought her the same fortune! Eventually, when the need for professional skill came, she was attended by the two latter doctors she had seen, for the case proved to be a difficult one. Requiring the aid of greater experience—for they were juniors—they sent for Dr. Inglis, with whose help the lives of mother and child were saved. Thus the patient was attended in the end by all the three women physicians whose advice she had scorned. The child was the first boy in the large family, and the mother's gratitude and delight after her recovery knew no bounds. It found, however, Scotch expression, shall we say? in her tribute, "Weel, I've had the hale three o' ye efter a', and ye canna say I hae'na likit ye—at the hinder en' at ony rate!" "That woman kept us busy with patients for many a day," writes one of the three. The bulky mother-in-law of one patient expressed her admiration of the doctor and her lack of faith in the justice of things by saying: "It's no fair Dr. Inglis is a woman; if she'd been a man, she'd ha' been a millionaire!" The doctor in whose memory these incidents live says of her friend: "No item was too trivial, no trouble too great to take, if she could help a human being, or if she could push forward or help a younger doctor."

If Elsie Inglis's intrepidity, determination, and invincible optimism were well known to the public, the circle of her friends was warmed by the truly loving heart with which they came in contact.

The following incident may show in some degree what a tender heart it was. A friend whose brother died, after an operation, in a nursing home in Edinburgh was staying at Dr. Inglis's house when the death occurred. The body had to be taken to the Highland home in the North. The sister writes: "My younger brother called for me in the early morning, as we had to leave by the 3 a.m. train to accompany the body to Inverness. When Dr. Inglis had said good-bye to us and we drove away in the cab, my brother—he is just an ordinary keen business man—turned to me with his eyes filled with tears, and said: 'I should have liked to kiss her like my mother.' (We had never known our mother.)"

In the fourteenth century, in that wonderful and most lovable woman, Catherine of Siena, we find the same union of strength and tenderness which was so noticeable in Dr. Inglis. In the Life of St. Catherine it is said: "Everybody loves Catherine Benincasa because she was always and everywhere a woman in every fibre of her being. By nature and temperament she was fitted to be what she succeeded in remaining to the end—a strong, noble woman, whose greatest strength lay in her tenderness, and whose nobility sprung from her tender femininity."

In her political sagacity, her optimism, and cheerfulness also, she reminds us of Elsie Inglis. During St. Catherine's Mission to Tuscany the following story is told of her by her biographer: "The other case" (of healing) "was that of Messer Matteo, her friend, the Rector of Misericordia, who had been one of the most active of the heretic priests in Siena. To this good man, lying in extremis after terrible agony, Catherine entered, crying cheerfully: 'Rise up, rise up, Ser Matteo! This is not the time to be taking your ease in bed!' Immediately the disease left him, and he, who could so ill be spared at such a time, arose whole and sound to minister to others."

We smile as we read of Catherine's "cheerful" entrance into this sick-chamber, and those who knew Dr. Inglis can recall many such a breezy entrance into the depressing atmosphere of some of her patients' sickrooms.


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