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City must pay tribute to First World War heroine Elsie Ingli

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BerichtGeplaatst: 04 Feb 2007 13:08    Onderwerp: City must pay tribute to First World War heroine Elsie Ingli Reageer met quote

City must pay tribute to wartime heroine

IT is said that prophets are never honoured in their own country, among their own kin and in their own house. Of no-one is this more true than Edinburgh's Dr Elsie Inglis, who transformed medical practices and whose work in the First World War was hailed mostly by people from beyond our shores.

Once a hospital was named after her, but it has long gone and Edinburgh now has no memorial to one of her greatest daughters. The Evening News has already highlighted the campaign for a memorial and I would like to add my voice to those pressing for a permanent tribute to this great woman.

So who was this forgotten figure? At a time when Great Britain and Ireland had fewer than 1000 woman doctors, Elsie Inglis was a leading surgeon, having studied at the Edinburgh School of Medicine and qualified in 1892.

A feisty, independent individual, Dr Inglis was enraged by the male-orientated teaching of medicine. She could see that the medical needs of working women were often overlooked and that some legislation was indefensible.

That no wife could undergo an operation without her husband's consent was "a frightful injustice!" Dr Inglis campaigned against cases where a husband's refused consent left his wife to a lingering death. For this alone, she deserves to be remembered.

Though Dr Inglis had many rich patients, she had a special sympathy for the poor, and set up a maternity home in the Canongate in 1901 staffed only by women. It succeeded so well that it became one of the few centres in Scotland for training female students in the medical needs of women. From it also grew a children's clinic, a ward for special cases, and provision for district nurses. For this, Dr Inglis should be celebrated.

Not surprisingly, she played a notable role in the establishment of the Scottish Women's Suffrage Federation - which differed from Emmeline Pankhurst's group, which advocated breaking the law.

The outbreak of war brought an end to such campaigns, and in October 1914, Dr Inglis offered her surgical services to the Army.

The reply has passed into legend: "My good lady - go home and be still!" Female surgeons were forbidden in the Royal Army Medical Corps. A suffragette friend wrote: "To her it seemed wicked that women with power to wield a surgeon's knife should be withheld from serving the sick and wounded." Dr Inglis' reply? "We will have hospitals of our own!" Not only that, it was to be an all-women unit. "Let us gather a few hundred pounds and then appeal to the public," she decided.

Acting quickly, the name "Scottish Women's Hospitals" was adopted and money began to pour in through women's suffrage societies. The sum of £50,000 was needed to put a single hospital together; costs included medical supplies, beds, cooking utensils, tents and even ambulances and, of course, shipping.

By Christmas the first Scottish Women's Hospital was based north-west of Paris, with 200 beds, and another 550 bed hospital had arrived in Serbia. Dr Inglis arranged the dispatch of women's units to Greece, Romania, Malta, Corsica and to Russia.

Dr Inglis joined the Serbian unit in April 1915, writing: "The compound was a truly terrible place, sights and smells beyond description. But we dug the rubbish into the ground, built incinerators, and cleaned, and cleaned and cleaned."

In October disaster struck as Austrians, Germans and Bulgarians overran the area. The Scottish Women's Hospital was strongly advised to leave with the Serbian army but they refused.

The Scots women were taken prisoner but, after five months of treating the wounded of both sides, were released, arriving home in February 1916.

Undeterred, Dr Inglis and a fresh SWH unit set off again to the Eastern Front via Archangel and Moscow, and set up two more hospitals. She wrote: "You cannot imagine what we found, 11,000 wounded and only one surgeon. They had overflowed into empty houses and were lying about in their uniforms, their wounds not dressed for four to five days. So we just turned up our sleeves and went in!" But yet again the enemy was superior and the Scots were swept back to the Ukraine, where they were trapped for five months by the nascent Bolshevik revolution.

There was nothing for it but to head home. Dr Inglis was, however, seriously ill with stomach cancer and died the day after arriving by sea at Newcastle, in November 1917. So great was her reputation that members of the Yugoslav royal family met her at the quay. Over her coffin, as she lay in St Giles' Cathedral, hung the Union flag and that of Serbia. She lies buried in the Dean Cemetery.

Elsie Inglis was much more than a Scottish Florence Nightingale, she was a leading surgeon who brought lasting changes to how her profession perceived women's medicine. Combined with a natural authority, her drive and vision gave the war a rare measure of humanity in several countries. She brought honour to her homeland and renown to her hometown.

Elsie Inglis has been overlooked. There is no memorial anywhere to this extraordinary woman, not even a plaque. It is time this changed. If we are unable to recall the deeds of such a figure, we are unlikely to equal them.

ē Neil Griffiths is press officer with the Royal British Legion Scotland

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Last updated: 03-Feb-07 11:28 GMT
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