One of the first women to graduate from the University of Edinburgh, Elsie Inglis left an enduring legacy of cheery bravery and excellent medical practice while working in war zones.
Inglis set up practice in Edinburgh in 1899, the same year she graduated in Medicine from the University of Edinburgh. She opened ‘The Hospice,’ which included surgical, gynaecological, accident departments and dispensary.
In 1905 she accepted a consultant post at the Bruntsfield Hospital, something which had previously been blocked by Sophia Jex-Blake. The hospital insisted she accept this time, causing Jex-Blake to leave for good.
In 1907 she was appointed senior consultant there, and the hospital joined with The Hospice. She was involved in the suffrage movement.
In 1914 when war broke out, Inglis applied to the Royal Army Medical Corp. The Edinburgh Castle representative responded with breathtaking derision:
My good lady, go home and sit still.
So Inglis convinced the Scottish and National Women’s Suffrage Societies to fund and organise women-run field hospitals, and offer these units to allied governments. The Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Services was founded in 1914.
Inglis and her team worked in Serbia, staying behind when the Germans advanced. She and those who’d chosen to stay worked in the Czar Lazar Barrack prisoner-of-war hospital, where they treated people in horrific conditions during severe food and fuel shortages during the 1915 winter. In 1916 they were repatriated, and Inglis was described by the press as:
A bright-faced little woman in a grey uniform who spoke modestly, almost shyly, of her work among the Serbians and referred to the risks she had run as if they were everyday and commonplace.
She returned to Europe in April, this time to Russia, and spent the rest of her working life treating streams of wounded Serbian and Russian soldiers.
Inglis had known since before the war that she had cancer and hadn’t told anyone. By the time she was on a ship home in 1917, she was bedridden. Standing up to say goodbye to the Serbian soldiers on board, she collapsed, dying the next day.
Local newspaper The Lancet’s obituary said:
Elsie Inglis gave her life for her country and its allies as truly as any soldier in the trenches has ever done, and as cheerfully.