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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Elsie Inglis

Looking Back

Friday November 6 2020

Looking Back: Elsie Inglis

Published in November 1969, a tribute to a Scottish heroine of the First World War

While we remember, or try to remember, the fallen, might we not also recall the debt that is owed to Elsie Maud Inglis, one of our pioneer women doctors?

As a girl Dr. Inglis had to fight for entry to her chosen profession. Then she carried the fight a step further, demanding equal pay for women doctors who generally held exactly the same qualifications as their male colleagues.

She also pioneered the establishment of clinics, and hospitals where women could be treated by members of their own sex. A small hospital was opened at 219 High Street, Edinburgh.

The Hospice, as she named it, carried on under difficult circumstances. Daily the doughty Dr. Inglis and her various helpers struggled up badly worn, steep, narrow, gas-lit stairs, to fight ignorance, disease, and bring medical help to the poverty stricken mothers of the area.

The 1914 war intervened and Dr. Inglis offered her talents to her country. Rebuffed by the War Office, she didn’t give up. Harrying officials everywhere she demanded that women be allowed to help the army, even in the thick of the fighting.

Her arguments were not well received. Presently she conceived the idea of forming hospital units with all the ancillary services, entirely staffed by women: each unit to contain doctors, nurses, ambulance and wagon drivers, cooks and canteen staff.

This idea too was rejected. But she won the support of the Suffragette movement, acquiring both money and members for her units. Soon the first units were ready to go.

Despite this obvious organising ability, the British Government once again refused her offer to help. After this last rebuff, she turned to our Allies. Gratefully this much needed assistance was accepted. In due course, fourteen fully equipped hospitals, complete with their own transport columns, and canteens, took their place alongside the fighting men.

In 1915, Dr. Inglis set sail for Serbia, to take charge of the Scottish Woman’s Hospital Unit, giving medical aid support to the Serbian Army.

Scarcely settled in, Dr. Inglis was submerged in a mass of surgical work as hundreds of wounded Serbs flooded into the unit. During this period she saw her ideas proved right time and again. Her girls, young and not so young, dug disposal pits, burned rubbish, scrubbed, washed, tackling every job that came their way.

The tide of war was going against the poorly equipped Serbs. It became apparent that the unit would be forced to retreat, leaving behind those wounded unfit to make the journey.

Elsie Inglis decided she couldn’t abandon them. As the battle engulfed them, Dr. Inglis and some members of the unit remained. Though now technically prisoners, they continued to serve, treating both Austrian and Serb with the same impartial and loving care.

Released and repatriated through Switzerland in the spring of 1916, with pictures of the heroic resistance of the Serbians imprinted on her mind, she planned the most arduous venture of all. She offered to take a unit to support those Serbian volunteers then fighting on the Russo-Rumanian front.

This unit, complete with sixteen ambulance cars and fifty tons of equipment, set sail from Liverpool, travelling via Archangel, Moscow, and Odessa, finally arriving in the Dobrudja, where they found the Serbian division in action.

Although the Serbian soldiers still fought with heroism, the Russian Revolution in 1917 left them without support. Food and supplies were cut off, but somehow the unit, along with 2,000 Serbian soldiers, survived, finally coming to rest at Hadji Abdul near Galatz.

Ordered home, Dr. Inglis refused to leave the Serbs. She insisted that arrangements be made for them to return to Britain with the Unit.

Ravaged by dysentery and hunger, exhausted by the long trek, they struggled towards Archangel. From this port, they set sail for Newcastle, arriving on 23rd November, 1917.

Three days later, her Russian mission accomplished, Elsie Inglis was dead. The strain of constant work, accompanied by bouts of fever and illness had taken their toll.

The eleventh hour, the eleventh day, the eleventh month: as the guns boom out to remind us of the dead, not a few may still remember with proud heart, the ‘sandy-heided doctor.’ It is well said that she never let go the anchor of life, the cross of faith, or the heart of love.

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