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Their story is little-known, but during the First World War, a group of Scottish women helped treat an estimated 200,000 Allied soldiers, and served as pioneers for the role of women in frontline medicine.
100 years on, the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and its leader Doctor Elsie Inglis is reaching a wider audience.
Women doctors, nurses and medics are essential to frontline medicine today, working in exactly the same roles as men.
But a century ago things were very different; women were actively discouraged from accompanying fighting troops.
Doctor Elsie Inglis was a well-known doctor and active suffragette in Edinburgh, founding several hospitals.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, she wrote to the War Office offering her services as a doctor to the frontline.
Their response infuriated her.
“‘My good lady’, they told her. ‘Go home and sit still.'”
Elsie decided that, given the backing of the suffrage societies, she would set up her own female hospital units. Very quickly the Belgians, the French, and particularly the Serbs all accepted their help.
Elsie Inglis was taken as a prisoner of war in Serbia, and the women had to endure the Serbian retreat after the country was invaded. It was dangerous but revolutionary work. The hospital units were staffed entirely by women – from surgeons, doctors and nurses, down to cooks, drivers and clerks.
Elsie’s unfailing support for the people of Serbia led her to become the first woman awarded the Order of the White Eagle, the country’s highest honour.
It’s now kept in Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals coped with the worst typhus epidemic in history, with 150,000 killed, as well as typhoid, cholera, and the catastrophic injuries of trench warfare.
Next year will mark a century since Elsie Inglis died, and historian Alan Cumming is now trying to spread the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to a wider audience.
He’s also visited Serbia several times, where huge commemorations are planned.
Elsie sadly died of cancer in 1917. She never got to vote, or to see the end of the war, but the Serbs treasure her memory.