Elsie – Edinburgh’s unsung heroine

The lady is accorded virtual saint-like status in Serbia. She received the highest awards for gallantry from France, Serbia and Russia. Registered as a doctor in 1892 - no mean feat for a Victorian woman - her medical practice and lectures in gynaecology and pre/postnatal care were regarded as groundbreaking by her peers. By 1914, she was one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated and respected citizens; but, at the same time, was vilified by the male establishment for her role as a leading Scottish suffragist. Within three years she was dead, but not before saving the lives of thousands of men on the battle-scarred front lines.

This remarkable woman is Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis (1864-1917) and a memorial maternity hospital was founded in her honour in Edinburgh in 1925. Yet, despite the fact that a great number of Auld Reekie’s denizens first drew breath in this excellent institution, the memory of Elsie and her considerable accomplishments have – over the passing years – become hazy in her hometown. Now her inspiring story is gradually being rediscovered; and it’s a stirring tale of derring-do, personal sacrifice, and immense, lasting achievements. Quite simply, Elsie was one of the greatest Scottish characters of the twentieth century.

In the centre of the Old Town, you can see a small dedication to this magnificent woman. On the High Street at number 219 there is a plaque which is now part of the Elsie Inglis Heritage Trail. This marks the spot where Elsie opened ‘The Edinburgh Hospice for Women and Children’ in 1904. The Hospice was a cutting-edge surgical and gynaecological centre, with its own operating theatre and centre for midwifery. It also served as a general dispensary and accident department. At this base, Elsie also conducted research into nutrition, a relatively new field, and persuaded the town council to publish the findings: ‘Study of the Diet of the Labouring Classes in Edinburgh’. This publication greatly aided subsequent public health initiatives in Scotland’s Capital.

Elsie’s lasting fame came from her work during the First World War. She is responsible for setting up the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee. It was funded by the women's suffrage movement and provided all female relief hospitals for the Allied Forces. When Elsie Inglis approached the Royal Army Medical Corps to offer them a ready-made Medical Unit with qualified women, the War Office famously told her "My good lady, go home and sit still". It was the French government that took up her offer and established her unit. Her work focused on improving hygiene to reduce typhus. In 1915 she was captured, repatriated and immediately set up fundraising for a Scottish Women's Hospital team in Russia. She headed up the unit but was forced to return home due to ill health.

Elsie’s funeral on the 29th November 1917 was a huge occasion for the city of Edinburgh. Following a lying-in-state in St Giles with full military honours, Elsie’s flag-draped coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses and taken over the Water of Leith to the Dean Cemetery for interment. The mourning crowds were six-deep as the carriage solemnly processed along the cold, wet streets. Elsie’s coffin was finally lowered into the ground by her beloved Serbian soldiers. The tears from these battle-hardened soldiers merged with the falling winter rain as Elsie’s story reached its glorious conclusion.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Elsie Inglis' death. If you want to pay your respects to this courageous, loving, charismatic, difficult, indefatigable, and ultimately amazing woman, you can visit her final resting place at Dean Cemetry; through the main entrance and turn right. The burial plot is at the top of a pathway, on the right – a small, white Celtic cross marks the unassuming grave. Why not pause for a moment to reflect on Elsie’s achievements and enduring legacy. Incredible as it may seem, thanks to Elsie and her pioneering work on pre/postnatal care, combined with her unstinting commitment to the implementation of exacting standards for ‘modern’ midwifery training, lives are still being saved today. And that’s probably the finest tribute you could afford anyone.  

Elsie Inglis Portrait Memorial Elsie Inglis High Street, Edinburgh

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