The Elsie Inglis Archive Collection

The Elsie Inglis Archive Collection

Elsie Inglis is a name of huge significance to Edinburgh, as well as medical history and indeed our own heritage here at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Next year, a statue of Elsie will be unveiled on the Royal Mile to honour her pioneering work. Importantly, this will be the first statue of a woman to be erected in Edinburgh city centre (sculptures of Queen Victoria and the social activist Helen Crummy are located in the outskirts of the city, in Leith and Craigmillar respectively). It feels rather timely then that we have recently acquired a wonderful new addition of archive material to expand our existing Elsie Inglis collection. This has been generously donated by retired orthopaedic surgeon Malcolm Macnicol FRCSEd, who, on his mother’s side of the family, is the great-nephew of Elsie Inglis.

Dr Elsie Maud Inglis (1864-1917) was a surgeon and suffragist, and in 1892 she became Licentiate of the three Scottish royal medical colleges, being among the early cohort of women able to qualify in medicine and surgery. Born in India, she came to Edinburgh with her parents when very young. During her early career she worked to improve maternity facilities and healthcare for women, founding a maternity hospital in Edinburgh in 1901, staffed only by women. Arguably however, her most well-known pioneering work took place when war broke out in 1914, when she established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. The War Office had rather bluntly rejected her offer of a ready-made medical unit staffed by women: “my good lady, go home and sit still”. Thankfully, the French Government accepted her proposition. By the close of the War, nearly 1,500 women had served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in France, Romania, Russia, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica and Serbia in 14 all-female staffed medical units, which included mobile field hospitals. They worked as surgeons, nurses, doctors, orderlies, cooks, administrators, secretaries and ambulance drivers, mostly in a volunteer capacity, caring for sick and wounded soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war in the heart of war zones, as well as providing assistance to refugees.

Elsie herself worked in units in Serbia and Russia, and in one letter in the College Archive she wrote home from Serbia in 1915, “you can imagine we have plenty to do when you hear we have 900 wounded”, encapsulating the sheer scale of the challenge. After being captured in 1915 Inglis was repatriated the following year, and once home she built up resources and left for Russia in August 1916 to continue her work with a unit there. Suffering from cancer, which she kept hidden from her colleagues, she was forced to return home in November 1917, and sadly she died in Newcastle only days after her arrival back in the UK. In 1925, the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital opened in Edinburgh, which was used by SWH funds after the war ended. Elsie became the first woman to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle, the highest decoration given by Serbia.

Our existing Elsie Inglis archive, which was donated by her family in 2009, includes her examination certificates, medals (on display in the Museum) and letters Elsie sent while she headed up units in Serbia (1915) and Odessa, Russia (1917). These reveal much about the patients and people Elsie encountered, and the work and hospital facilities available to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

The additional tranche of material donated in March 2023 comprises letters written to her family - including Elsie’s childhood letters - manuscript and typescript notes, photographs, 3 large scrapbook albums with photos and press cuttings, biographical material and artwork. Researchers often mention that it is a common source of frustration that only a handful of images of Elsie actually exist in UK archives, so I am particularly thrilled with the inclusion of several never-seen-before photographs. A particular highlight of the new acquisition are notes made by Elsie during the very early days of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and the inclusion of her passport, stamped from her travels with the hospital units, feels like quite a poignant addition.

Elsie Inglis leaves a phenomenal legacy, and we are again grateful to Malcolm Macnicol and his family for this further donation. As a senior College Fellow, some of you may already know Malcolm, who spent much of his career practising surgery in Edinburgh. Like his great-aunt Elsie, Malcolm spent much of his childhood in India with his Scottish parents, and the family returned to Scotland when Malcolm was 11. He graduated with a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh and thereafter followed a very successful orthopaedic surgical career. He was admitted to College Fellowship in 1973 and served as Honorary Treasurer from 1987 to 1990.

During an interview in 2011, Malcolm was asked about what inspired him to follow a medical career:

I think there was a little invisible pressure to become a doctor having had a great aunt as well known as Elsie [Inglis] and my grandmother on one side being a doctor. There were several others too further afield who’d been doctors including one who was the surgeon to the Queen. So these made the choice perhaps a little more weighted towards medicine than to architecture.

During his tenure as Treasurer, Mr Macnicol was a very enthusiastic supporter of the Heritage Department, and he remains a good friend of the Library and Archive. In the past, he has spoken of the importance of preserving our historical collections given that they are a source of considerable pride to the College, and I am very much inclined to agree!

Our existing Elsie Inglis and Scottish Women’s Hospitals collections are among the most heavily accessed archive collections by researchers, and many of those, including Elsie’s wartime letters, are digitised and available online on our Digital Collections website.

Written by Jacqueline Cahif, College Archivist, RCSEd.

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