On the 14th of February every year, St Valentines Day, the people of Kragujevac, in Serbia, commemorate the life of Dr Elizabeth Ness Ross and the other women from various medical missions who died in the city at the time.
After working in the city’s typhus ward Dr Elizabeth Ross contracted the fever herself and died on 14th February 1915, her 37th birthday.
It feels very special, knowing that 2000 miles away and one hundred and three years on, the city commemorates her life with an annual service. A remarkable lady with a story that surely inspires us all.
Elizabeth Ness Macbean Ross was born on 14th February 1878. Her father, Donald, was a banker, and the family made Tain their home. When Elizabeth went down to Glasgow to study medicine at Queen Margaret College, she was 18. This was in 1896, just two years after the first woman medical graduate, Marion Gilchrist, had her degree conferred. Elizabeth was one of the pioneers for a generation of determined, often very bright young women doctors who had to put an extra effort into acquiring their education in the face of many obstacles.
Elizabeth rose to the challenge. She was a good student, earning second class certificates in Chemistry and Anatomy in her first year, and in later stages, a first class certificate in Midwifery, and second class certificates in the Practice of Medicine, Insanity and Ophthalmology.
She graduated MB in 1901. Hers was a medical family. Her sister Lucy graduated in Medicine and her brother James Ness MacBean Ross graduated MB ChB from Edinburgh – later he would serve gallantly as a Naval Surgeon and win a Military Cross (MC).
Immediately after graduating Elizabeth took up a post in the East Ham area of London and was also a Medical Officer on Colonsay for some months. Later she obtained a post in Persia as an assistant to a Medical Practitioner, before setting up her own practice. In preparation for her journey, she had studied tropical medicine and on her return during a spell of convalescence she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine.
She was an unconventional person and highly resourceful. She had many adventures, and was once lost in the desert and robbed by brigands, requiring Government assistance to reach safety. It was said that she was made a chieftain of one of the tribes. Her work in Persia was interrupted for only brief periods, once for a short convalescence at home, and once to take up an appointment as a ship’s surgeon, travelling to the coast of India and Japan. Persia called her back, however, and she returned to work there until the outbreak of the Great War.
At the beginning of the war, at the invitation of the Russian government, she volunteered to serve in Serbia. She worked in shocking conditions at the fever hospital in Kragujevac, with two Greek doctors and no trained nursing staff. There she contended with dirt and unwashed patients, sometimes two to a bed. Working intensely on the typhus ward, she was exhausted, and contracted the fever herself. She died on her 37th birthday, 14th February 1915. She was a free and independent spirit, greatly missed by all who worked with her, amongst them the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospital.
Her fellow students at the University paid a handsome tribute to her and this is an extract from the Glasgow University Magazine of 1915;
“Of brilliant intellectual attainments, and exceptional originality, Dr Ross was a personality seldom to be met with. Careless of conventions, yet at the same time giving evidence of refinement and culture of upbringing, she was slow to make friends but once made, she was loyal and steadfast in her friendships, once made never broken, she was much beloved by those who knew her well. Numerous literary articles have appeared from her fluent pen. Her outstanding quality was courage in the face of any danger, and although possessed of a frail and delicate physique, she would enter where even a man might hesitate, in the enthusiasm for her work. It was the great power and influence of her mind which led to heights which others can only dream of from afar. Her sister, Dr Lucy Ross, and her brother, a naval surgeon, shared her studies and interests.”
Dr Elizabeth Ross’s life and sacrifice are commemorated on a brass plaque in St Duthus Church and in an annual service held in Kragujevac, south of Belgrade.