Why Dr Elsie Inglis is the best Edinburgher of all time – Susan Dalgety
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The Evening News contest to find the best Edinburgher of all time offers a fascinating glimpse into our past. If I have one gripe, it is that there are not enough women on the list of our city’s 150 most famous faces over the last 150 years, but that’s to be expected. History is full of men, and Edinburgh is no different.
But I am delighted that Dr Elsie Inglis has made the cut. She is one of the city’s most significant citizens of any era. A pioneer for women’s rights, she graduated as a doctor in 1892. Two years later, she opened her general practice surgery, as well as a hospital for women and girls.
By coincidence, local historian Andy Arthur has just unearthed a grimly fascinating piece of research carried out by Dr Inglis and two colleagues in 1901 for the council’s public health committee. The medics were asked to find out what the city’s working class and impoverished citizens ate over a week.
The study involved 15 households in the Canongate, whose average income was just under 25 shillings a week (the equivalent of £122 in 2023). Andy has highlighted the report’s main findings on social media and they make for fascinating reading. The average weekly spend on food was just over 15 shillings a week (£77.35 in today’s money) – 79 per cent of household income. Rent in those days was cheap, about £14 a week. Changed days indeed.
Most people existed on a monotonous diet, with the bulk of their weekly food bill spent on bread, potatoes, milk, cheap cuts of beef, cabbage and onions, and sugar. Porridge was also an important part of everyone’s diet, as were eggs, but fish was not very popular, despite being relatively cheap and full of protein.
Andy points out that the study would probably have failed without the involvement of Elsie Inglis and the female medical students she recruited to collect the data. “They convinced reluctant families – usually the housewife – to allow them intrude on their lives,” he explains. The students were so diligent in their research, they even collected discarded potato peelings to be weighed and counted.
Women living on their own were by far the worst-off of the 15 households. A woman whose husband was fighting in the Boer War had only eight shillings a week (£41 in 2023) for her and her 15-year-old daughter to live on. And one elderly woman, who was on her own because her husband was in a “lunatic asylum”, survived by sewing. Her income was unknown, but she only spent the equivalent of £5.80 a week on food.
Four years after the study was published in 1902, the then-Liberal government introduced free school meals, the first in a series of social legislation which also included the introduction of the old age pension in 1908 and heralded the beginnings of the welfare state.
I would like to think that the work of Dr Elsie Inglis and her team of female medical students helped persuade politicians that a civilised country looks after all its citizens, not just the rich. For that reason alone, Dr Inglis deserves to be our top Edinburgher.
For more information, see Andy Arthur’s website, www.threadinburgh.scot