Dr Elsie Maud Inglis | A Scottish Superhero

We are in awe of the extraordinary work being done right now by healthcare professionals across the UK and the world. In this blog, we reflect on the superhuman efforts of Dr Elsie Maud Inglis - humanitarian, feminist and pioneer of medical education for women - who risked everything to save lives during the First World War.

Ivan Mestrovic Dr Elsie Maud Inglis, 1864 - 1917. Physician and surgeon 1918 © The Estate of the Artist

Dr Inglis was one of the first women to study medicine at Edinburgh and Glasgow and, once qualified, devoted herself to ameliorating the treatment of her sex. In Edinburgh she established a maternity hospital staffed entirely by women (inspired by her time with Dr Garrett Anderson in London) and played a major role in starting up a second medical school for women.

Inglis, not least because of her experiences in the medical profession, was an active supporter of the fight for women's suffrage and was a founder of the Scottish Women's Suffragette Foundation.

When the First World War broke out, Inglis had the idea of establishing all-women units of doctors, nurses and orderlies to set up field hospitals. The War Office turned her offer down but France and Serbia accepted, and the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service came into being, staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. Initially Inglis remained in Britain organising the units, but in 1915 she went to Serbia to relieve a colleague. Serbia was soon overrun but Inglis stayed at her hospital, winning the admiration of the Serbs and eventually being captured. 

Repatriated in 1917, she soon returned to assist the Serbs on the Balkan front, leaving only when they were finally ordered out of Russia. Inglis died of cancer the day after her boat docked at Newcastle.

The Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic made the bust (above) of Inglis, whom he had never met, the year after. It was then presented to the Scottish nation by the Serbian government in gratitude for Inglis's work in Serbia during the war. Indeed, Inglis was the first woman to receive the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Serbian honour for heroism.

A commemorative tablet was set up at the former Elsie Inglis Maternity Hospital at Abbeyhill, Edinburgh, founded as a memorial to her in 1923.

27 March 2020