Elsie Inglis: The War Heroine Who Refused to ‘Go Home and Sit Still’

23 Nov 2017
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We’re celebrating the achievements of a remarkable woman, as we mark 100 years since the death of Dr. Elsie Inglis.

Elsie created Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) and is remembered for her incredible selflessness. During World War One, SWH provided care and support to thousands of soldiers, an action that would previously have been unthinkable. However, Elsie chose to listen to a louder call, from the battlefields of Europe, and demonstrated that women were more than capable of performing roles they’d previously been denied.

Breaking with the norm

Born in 1864, Elsie quickly developed a thirst for knowledge and a desire to make her own path in life. She was fortunate to have parents who considered a daughter’s education just as important as that of a son and nurtured her growing interest in medicine. In 1887, Elsie enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but, after regularly disagreeing with their uncompromising ways, she left and founded her own college.

Elsie qualified in 1892 becoming one of Scotland’s first female doctors, but throughout her training she had been deeply affected by the treatment of female patients. Elsie saw improvements in this area as an immediate priority and obtained a post at the pioneering New Hospital for Women in London. After spending time there, Elsie also took a position at The Rotunda in Dublin, a leading maternity hospital.

Armed with the experience of these world-leading hospitals, Elsie returned home to Edinburgh ready to put her knowledge to good use. She not only opened a medical practice, but also a maternity hospital for poor women and a midwifery resource centre. A caring and generous woman, Elsie regularly waived fees owed by her patients and she was also known to occasionally pay for her patients to recuperate by the seaside.

A helping hand turned away

"I cannot think of anything more calculating to bring home to men the fact that women can help intelligently in any kind of work. So much of our work is done where they cannot see it. They'll see every bit of this" - Elsie Inglis

At the outbreak of World War One, Elsie rightly saw her skills as being hugely important to the war effort. However, this was not in line with prevailing gender stereotypes, where women were expected to take a back seat. Elsie, who was also a strong campaigner during the suffragist movement, saw an opportunity to help both causes simultaneously. She believed that helping the war effort would not only help soldiers in need, but also demonstrate the true capabilities of women.

Elsie formed SWH and approached the War Office in London to offer her support. What she offered was a ready-made unit, staffed by qualified female staff, all keen to do their part for the war effort.  Incredibly, Elsie raised the money, with the help of some supporters, to fund the uniforms, equipment and everything else herself, mainly through her contacts in the suffragist movement. However, her help was refused, famously being told “my good lady, go home and sit still”. Elsie was undeterred by this, and began offering SWH to other allied forces, where she was warmly welcomed.

On the front lines

"We get these expert women doctors, nurses and ambulance workers organised. We send units wherever they are wanted. The need is there and too terrible to allow any haggling about who does the work" - Elsie Inglis

Of the more than 1500 personnel that served SWH, only 20 were men. Women were not only doctors and surgeons, but also ambulance drivers, orderlies and cooks. Their work began in Calais, providing support to Belgian soldiers. However, the ever-growing need for medical support across Europe quickly saw this number increase. Over time Elsie Inglis and her SWH set up an incredible 17 hospitals across Europe. This included bases in France, Greece, Corsica, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Russia.

On top this, satellite hospitals and dressing stations were also set up in other locations stretching across all areas affected by the war. These units were, at times, on the front lines and were stationed on both the eastern and western fronts. No matter how bad the arena of war was, including the Battle of the Somme, Elsie’s units were on hand to offer vital medical care and support. This really hammered home the fact that there were so many women like Elsie who could make a real impact on the on-going war.

‘The Serbian Mother from Scotland’

Elsie herself spent most of her war years in Serbia, and developed a strong affinity with the Serbian people who she called ‘her beloved Serbs’. She was based in the country while it was invaded by three other countries in 1915 and was at one point held as a prisoner of war. Throughout this incredible ordeal Elsie not only provided medical care to the Serbs, but also to the invading armies. After Russia’s involvement in the war ended, tens of thousands of Serbs faced certain death. However, Elsie successfully petitioned for support to aid the troops on their journey home. Today she is affectionately known throughout the country as ‘The Serbian Mother from Scotland’.

What many people didn’t know was that, whilst enduring the brutality of war, Elsie was also fighting a battle of her own. Elsie had become increasingly ill throughout the latter part of her life, and knew that she had cancer. However, she selflessly suffered her own pain while attempting to cure the pain of others. As a result, Elsie, and her army of women, saved countless numbers of allied lives. In November of 1917, at the tail end of a long, six-week journey home, Elsie’s condition steadily worsened. Sadly, just a day after setting foot back on home soil she died.

Elsie’s story is one of incredible selflessness in the face of overwhelming odds. Her journey challenged out-dated perceptions of women head-on, showing their true capabilities to doubters everywhere. Along the way, Elsie helped fundamentally improve standards of care for women in hospitals, further the cause of women’s suffrage and bring vital medical aid to thousands on the battlefields of Europe.

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