THIS week and next I will attempt to chart the extraordinary life and career of Dr Elsie Inglis, a pioneering surgeon, successful doctor in private practice, inspiring teacher and lecturer, founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals who gave so much in wartime, co-founder of other hospitals, an iconic suffragist, a philanthropist, the first woman to hold the Serbian Order of the White Eagle, the face on a Clydesdale Bank £50 note, and “The Lady of the Torch” who is often nominated as the greatest-ever Scottish woman.

It will take two columns to even scratch the surface of the story of Elsie Inglis, a person that I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time but whose story now, in these dreadful days of coronavirus, has so much relevance.

For Elsie – normally I would write of her as Dr Inglis. I mean no disrespect by calling her Elsie, but I feel I’ve grown to know her personally in recent times – went to a real war and used all her experience and skills to battle against not just terrible wounds but dreadful diseases, such as typhus, which killed a number of her colleagues. We’ll learn more about her wartime activities next week, but this week I want to concentrate on the career and personality of a woman who packed so much into her life before her entry into the Great War.

In doing so I am inspired by researcher Alan Cumming, whose work will feature next week. He told my colleague Nan Spowart in The National of November 11, 2017: “When Elsie saw suffering or injustice she wanted to make a difference. It makes me feel very proud. She was someone who built bridges and what she did paved the way for other women to come after her.

“The best way to remember her is by ensuring young people go out in the world knowing these stories. She is a great role model and someone young Scots can be proud of.”

Alan Cumming is so right. Elsie Inglis truly was a great Scottish role model, though curiously she was born and died furth of these borders, albeit by just 60 miles in the case of her passing.

She was born in Nainital in India on August 16, 1864. Her father, John Forbes David Inglis, was a senior civil servant in the East India Company and her mother, Harriet Lowes Thompson, was a long-suffering and much-travelled daughter of another East India Company administrator. The couple would have nine children in all, with Eliza Maud, as she was christened, the second daughter and third youngest of the family. Her younger sister, Eva Helen, would later become Eva Shaw McLaren and write her big sister’s biography, Elsie Inglis, The Woman With the Torch, on which my account of Elsie greatly relies.

The children had an atypical education, schooled in India at a time when the Raj was at its peak. Her father was a religious man and the children would all read from scripture before meals. She was firmly attached to her father from birth, and he always doted on her. Elsie and Eva had 40 dolls, and in an early indication of her future path, she would paint the dolls with red spots and treat them for “measles” so that all the dolls were eventually cured.

Realising that he had reached the summit of his career with the East India Company, John Inglis retired at the age of 56 and returned home to Scotland, via Tasmania, where some of his elder children had settled.

With her father a noted proponent of education for women, from 1878 Elsie attended the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Ladies in Charlotte Square – a progressive and liberal establishment and therefore much-frowned upon in douce Edinburgh – where she showed her independence of spirit by asking every resident of that renowned square if the girls from the school could use its famous garden for play, with no one refusing her.

At the age of 18 she attended a finishing school in Paris but she returned to Edinburgh just in time to help nurse her mother through her final illness, the then deadly scarlet fever.

Elsie was determined to become a doctor, a very brave vocation to adopt at a frankly misogynistic time in Scottish Victorian society.

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake had established the country’s first medical school catering exclusively for women, the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. It was not a happy place, due largely to Jex-Blake’s overly disciplined approach. Eventually Elsie and other women students rebelled and two of them, Grace and Georgina Cadell, were expelled. They later successfully sued Jex-Blake for damages and were among the first students at the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women, which was opened in 1889 by the Scottish Association for the Medical Education of Women, established by Elsie, her father John and his great friend from India, Sir William Muir, the principal of Edinburgh University.

Another far-sighted doctor, Sir William Macewen, taught women at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Elsie was able to study under him. This enabled her to gain a triple licentiate that qualified her as a doctor, surgeon and educator on August 4, 1892, 12 days short of her 28th birthday.

She gained experience in London at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s New Hospital for Women before moving to Dublin, where she worked in obstetrics. Elsie returned to Edinburgh to care for her father in his final illness before his death at the age of 73 on March 4, 1894. He was buried in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery.

On the death of her father, Elsie wrote to one of her brothers: “He always said that he did not believe that death was the stopping-place, but that one would go on growing and learning through all eternity. God bless him in his onward journey. I simply cannot imagine life without him.” Many years later Elsie would say: “If I have been able to do anything – whatever I am, whatever I have done – I owe it all to my father.”

She bounced back from her deep grief to found a general practice in the city with Jessie MacGregor, a colleague from the Edinburgh School of Medicine. It was clear to Elsie that women’s medicine was greatly neglected in the city and she was also determined to improve the lot of children, so before Dr MacGregor left for the USA for family reasons, the two women founded a cottage hospital for women and children, later called the Hospice, based in George Square. It would later move to expanded premises in the High Street, and was the model for many such similar establishments across Scotland.

Though she never married and had no children of her own, Elsie dearly loved all children. She would often waive her fees if a family could not afford treatment for the many illnesses which affected children in those days. Polio was a particular concern of hers.

With the prejudice against women doctors slowly beginning to fade, Elsie graduated from Edinburgh University in 1899, and became a lecturer in gynaecology at the Medical College for Women.

Throughout her time in Edinburgh, following her return to nurse her father, Elsie was deeply involved in the Suffrage movement.

With the encouragement of her father and while still studying, she became secretary of the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Seeing no distinction between campaigning for a woman’s right to vote and a woman’s right to good healthcare, Elsie began to agitate and organise for both. She spoke at countless meetings up and down the country, becoming a key orator in the push for women’s suffrage.

It’s important to note that Elsie was a suffragist. She was not a suffragette as she did not believe in direct action that might involve violence. She very much allied herself with Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. When the various Scottish suffrage groups formed themselves into a federation, it was Elsie who became their national secretary in 1906, a job she held until 1914.

According to an article by Lucy Inglis, a relation of Elsie’s, in The Lancet in 2014, “she said herself that ‘fate had placed her in the van[guard] of a great movement’ for which she was described as a ‘good speaker and a keen fighter’”.

It seems quite remarkable that this highly politicised campaigner was also a first class surgeon. One colleague wrote of her that “she was quiet, calm, and collected, and never at a loss, skilful in her manipulations, and able to cope with any emergency”.

She was also always willing to learn. Hearing in 1913 that the USA had a prototype maternity and obstetrics hospital, she travelled all the way to Michigan state to visit the establishment.

She came back full of ideas for a new hospice based on what she had discovered. But as we shall see, events would overtake her project.

Apart from the determination to work for suffrage and her undoubted passion for medicine and caring personality, what was Elsie like personally at that time in Edinburgh?

As well as the photographs that exist of Elsie, we have been left a vivid description of what she looked like and the impression she made on people. This is by one of her friends from her Edinburgh practice, a fellow suffragist, S E S Mair, who wrote: “In outward appearance Dr Inglis was no Amazon, but just a woman of gentle breeding, courteous, sweet-voiced, somewhat short of stature, alert, and with the eyes of a seer, blue-grey and clear, looking forth from under a brow wide and high, with soft brown hair brushed loosely back; with lips often parted in a radiant smile, discovering small white teeth and regular, but lips which were at times firmly closed with a fixity of purpose such as would warn off unwarrantable opposition or objections from less bold workers.

“Those clear eyes had a peculiar power of withdrawing on rare occasions, as it were, behind a curtain when their owner desired to absent herself from discussion of points on which she preferred to give no opinion.

Incredibly, from around 1904 onwards, Elsie found time to write a novel which was never published. It was called the Story of a Modern Woman and was found in manuscript form by her sister Eva.

One passage from the novel is particularly revealing. The heroine of the book, Hildeguard Forrest, is clearly based on Elsie herself. On surviving a boating accident, Hildeguard says: “Self-revelation is not usually a pleasant process. Not often do we find ourselves better than we expected. Usually the sudden flash that shows us ourselves makes us blush with shame at the sight we see. But very rarely, and for the most part for the people who are not self-conscious, the flash may, in a moment, reveal unknown powers or unsuspected strength.

“And Hildeguard, sitting back in the boat, suddenly realized she wasn’t a coward. She looked back in surprise over her life, and remembered that the terror which as a child would seize her in a sudden emergency was the fear of being parted from her mother, not any personal fear for herself, or her own safety. Such a pleasurable glow swept over her as she sat there in the rocking boat. ‘Why, no,’ she thought; ‘I wasn’t frightened.’”

As we shall see next week, Elsie confronted her fears in wartime, and her own death, with similar sang-froid.