October 31, 2008
-written by Independent group member Morgoth Melnik
To call Dr Elsie Inglis an ‘independent woman’, seems like an understatement, given that she was able to carve her own path and make a positive impact in a Victorian era so thoroughly male dominated that women were seldom educated beyond a basic level, were barred from most universities, had no reproductive freedom, could not vote, were not politically represented, and had limited rights over the fate of their children and their property.
Born in 1864, she was one of Scotland’s earliest prominent female doctors and was fiercely dedicated all throughout her life to providing better health services for all women, and to improving opportunities for other women to become qualified in the medical profession. She was also instrumental in campaiging for women’s rights in Scotland, helping to found the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Foundation. She lived just long enough to see women over 30 gain the vote, although unfortunately not long enough to exercise her own voting rights.
Elsie Inglis spent her early years in British-controlled India before arriving for further education in Edinburgh. She had been fortunate enough to have parents who took a positive attitude towards the education of their daughters, and supported her in her decision to work in the health profession. However, at the time, women were not allowed to enroll in Scotland’s mainstream medical colleges, so in order to become qualified as a Doctor, Elsie had to follow in the footsteps of another pioneer for women in medicine, Dr Sophia Jex Blake, who had just set up the first Women’s school for medicine in Edinburgh. Elsie attended Dr Jex Blake’s medical school for a few years, but left the college to train at a new school in Glasgow after Dr Jex Blake ejected some students for what Elsie saw as a trivial offence. Elsie Inglis later set up her own Medical School for Women, which eventually became Edinburgh’s only college for women doctors.
After gaining her medical qualifications and entering medical practice in London at the ‘New Hospital for women’ in London, she was horrified by the poor state of medical care offered to women. She returned to Edinburgh and garnered support for the establishment of a medical hospice and midwifery centre for women. This was to be staffed entirely by women doctors and nurses, giving women doctors valuable experience and training, and providing women with the medical services they badly needed. She aimed to provide healthcare ‘where it was most needed’ and not on the basis of the patients’ ability to pay, and gave free treatment to many of the city’s desperately poor women. In an era where birth control was practically non-existent and infant and maternal mortality rates high, and there were scarce opportunities for women for financial independence, the provision of good care during pregnancy and childbirth was of vital importance to most women’s lives.
It’s telling but not suprising that, whilst Dr Elsie Inglis dedicated much of her life to helping women, it is for her later establishment of women’s medical units at the front in the First World War, that she is most renowned. Although Elsie Inglis and many of her staff were doctors, comparisons to Florence Nightingale abound in contemporary descriptions of her, although the British government was not at the time very enthusiastic in its support of women’s units and she gained greater support from the French government. She worked in Serbia and her unit was taken as prisoners of war for five months. After release she continued to help tend to the wounded and stop the spread of disease amongst soldiers and civillians in Russia, before her death in 1917 of cancer.
I’ve always been aware of Dr Elsie Inglis’ legacy- my first memory is of my brother’s birth in ‘the Elsie Inglis’ – a maternity hospital set up in her memory in my hometown of Edinburgh . But for a shortage of beds, I would have been born in the ‘Elsie Inglis’ as well. Although the hospital closed a few years later in 1988, the hospital maintained a women-centric ethos towards the end and had a reputation as a comfortable, democratic and friendly place to give birth in a more alternative, less medicalised setting.
For more information on Dr Elsie Inglis :
Biography written soon after her death :
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Elsie Inglis, by Eva Shaw McLaren