Why Dr Elsie Inglis deserves to be honoured in Edinburgh

Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh doctor, who came up with the idea for the Scottish Women's Hospitals.
Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh doctor, who came up with the idea for the Scottish Women's Hospitals.
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She defied instruction from the War Office to return from the frontline, was lauded by Churchill as a heroine who “will shine in history”, was a staunch advocate of women’s rights – and now the life of Elsie Inglis surely deserves to be honoured in her adopted home city.

Although born in a former British hill station, high in the outer Himalayas of Nainital in India, more than 150 years ago, the legacy that would bring Dr Elsie Maud Inglis’ international recognition began closer to home.

Scottish nursing pioneer Elsie Inglis from the book 'Between The Lines' (from Central Library

Scottish nursing pioneer Elsie Inglis from the book 'Between The Lines' (from Central Library

A wealth of impressive and influential figures have helped shaped the society and city we live in, with many of them honoured throughout the streets, in parks and sculpted into church walls.

But few – in fact just two – of these are of the women who, against the adversity of their time, fought to make a change, have a statue in their name.

To raise awareness of the women deserving of such a visible reminder, the News has launched a campaign to celebrate the significant contribution these women have made and to create a discussion not just about who deserves an effigy in their likeness, but to remember the remarkable stories behind the oft forgotten names.

And in a year which marks the centenary of her death, the story of Dr Inglis’ inspirational life, well known throughout Serbia, remains relatively unknown in Edinburgh. Born to parents who, despite living in an era which still viewed the education of women as secondary to that of men, championed her studies.

Elsie Inglis plaque on the Royal Mile. Picture; Dani Garavelli.

Elsie Inglis plaque on the Royal Mile. Picture; Dani Garavelli.

On the family’s return to Scotland in 1878, Elsie attended school at Edinburgh’s Institution for Educating Young Ladies at 23 Charlotte Square with her sister Eva.

By this stage Dr Inglis had already seen more of the world than many women of her time. On her travels home to Scotland from her early childhood in India, she visited Tasmania.

She completed her studies and was sent to finishing school in Paris, in 1882 at the age of 18.

And it was following the death of her mother Harriet in 1885, to scarlet fever, aged 47 that she announced her intention to “go in for medicine” in 1886.

At the time seven women who had been determined to change the opportunities open to women in tertiary education had matriculated into Edinburgh University after winning the fight to allow women to qualify as doctors in Britain.

Known as the Edinburgh Seven, Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell were trail blazers for the rights for women to practice medicine despite continued opposition.

Ms Jex-Blake, who led the Edinburgh Seven, set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, as director and dean.

However, Ms Jex-Blake’s powerful nature began to get her into trouble and students – who included the newly matriculated Elsie Inglis – found her manner too domineering.

She opened a competing school, the Medical College for Women, based at 30 Chambers Street in 1890.

When the College gained access to the Royal Infirmary wards for teaching, the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women could no longer compete and it was closed in 1898.

It was at this time Elsie moved into politics.

She became the honorary secretary of Edinburgh’s National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

A mover and shaker in the fight for women’s suffrage, she is often wrongly attributed asbeing a suffragette.

Although she championed the rights of women, she was strongly against militant action.

In 1892 Dr Inglis passed her exams to qualify as a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow.

Shocked by the standard of care and lack of specialisation in the needs of female patients, she managed to obtain the post of resident medical doctor at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s pioneering New Hospital for Women in London.

And in 1893, to better understand the unique needs of female patients, she moved to Dublin for three months to work in the Rotunda, a leading maternity hospital.

In a year that would bring her great satisfaction and great sorrow, Elsie had returned to Edinburgh in 1894 to open a medical practice at Walker Street, “The Hospice” on the Royal Mile, for poor women alongside a midwifery resource centre, which was a forerunner of the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital.

But in March her father died, a huge blow to Elsie, who wrote “I simply cannot imagine life without him”.

It was in the ensuing years that Dr Inglis demonstrated her great determination and philanthropy, often paying for patients recuperation herself.

She also continued to work tirelessly in the campaign for women’s votes.

But it was her work on the frontline during the First World War that she is best known, for that is where she set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, providing all female staffed relief hospitals for the Allied war effort.

The organisation was active in sending teams to Belgium, France, Serbia and Russia and she went herself to Serbia where her work in improving hygiene reduced the raging typhus epidemic.

Ian McFarlane, founder of the Dr Elsie Inglis Scottish Women’s Hospitals’ Trust, has been campaigning for greater recognition for Dr Inglis legacy for 20 years. He said: “Creating a monument to Scottish women is hugely significant in terms of re-addressing the gender balance in the streets of Edinburgh. As it stands, they are a pantheon to men.

“These women, surgeons, doctors, nurses, drivers, gave away everything for an ideal. The pioneering field hospitals and the treatment was completely revolutionary. A permanent monument to honour their achievements, is not only relevant but fundamental in showing what they did, to future generations.”

What do you think?

Do you agree that we do not do to enough in Edinburgh to recognise the achievements of the city’s women?

If so, who would you like to see honoured and in what way?

Would you be prepared to support a crowdfunding appeal to help pay for a statue?

Let us know by e-mailing Fiona Pringle at fiona.pringle@jpress.co.uk, writing to Fiona at Orchard Brae House or adding your comments on our website or Facebook page.

A young piper’s story leaves A mark

She didn’t so much shine a light on the suffragette movement but sounded the skirl of the pipes in support.

With a half-sized set of pipes in hand, a frail young girl, joined a march which would help make her own mark on history.

And with a vote from Lost Edinburgh, the little-known tale of Bessie Watson means she is doubtless a worthy contender for a statue, pipes poised, in the heart of the Capital.

Bessie, who lived on the Vennel in the centre of town, was bought a specially made set of pipes from Robertson’s pipe makers at 58 Grove Street.

An unusual gift for a young girl, her parents, concerned for her health following her aunt’s contagious tuberculosis diagnosis, hoped her bagpipe practice would strengthen her lungs and ward off any potential infection.

It was shortly after that that a chance drop-in to the Women’s Social and Political Union on Queensferry Street would change the course of Bessie’s life.

She was asked to play at the famous 1909 procession through Edinburgh – at the height of the suffragette movement.

On that day a large crowd watched as hundreds of banner-waving ladies, wearing the suffragist colours of purple, white and green, marched down Princes Street before congregating at Waverley Market for a rally led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Her support of women’s rights continued as she accompanied inmates bound for Holloway Prison to Waverley Station, playing the pipes as their trains departed.

Her cheerful tunes could also be heard by incarcerated suffragettes locked in Calton Jail in an attempt to raise their spirits. And during the Great War a teenage Bessie, dressed in full Highland garb, joined ranks with the Scots Guards to aid the call to arms for volunteers.

fiona.pringle@jpress.co.uk