The Scottish Women’s Hospitals: the first World War and the careers of early medical women

M. E. Cornelis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH) was a women’s organization that equipped fourteen women’s hospital units across Europe during the First World War. About one hundred female doctors of different backgrounds served with the SWH. The aim of this study is to investigate how the experiences of women doctors during the First World War affected their later careers. This retrospective cohort study included the 92 women doctors who survived the War, as well as another 6 volunteers who qualified in medicine shortly after the War. By studying their publications, (auto)biographies, obituaries, genealogical databases and entries in the Medical Directory, their lives and careers are reconstructed. This study argues that, even though wartime service undoubtedly had an enormous impact on this group of brave and forward-thinking women, the beneficial effects on the position of women doctors, as a whole, were negligible.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-194
Number of pages21
JournalMedicine, Conflict and Survival
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2 Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This article is based on research for my master?s dissertation written in 2018. I would like to thank Prof Malcolm Nicolson, emeritus professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Glasgow, for his guidance during this research project. Furthermore, I am thankful for the financial support given to me by the VSBfonds (NL), Van Beek Donner Stichting (NL) and the Douglas Guthrie Trust (Scottish Society for the History of Medicine). Lastly, I am thankful for the hospitality I enjoyed at the library of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Funding Information:
Among them was famous Scottish gynaecologist and suffragist Dr Elsie Inglis (1864–1917), who founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in 1914. She had been honorary secretary of the Edinburgh National Society of Women’s Suffrage in the 1890s and later fulfilled the same role in the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies (Leneman ). With financial support from the NUWSS, she was able to offer the War Office two fully equipped, all-female hospital units of 100 beds each (Weiner ). In response, she received the oft-quoted reply ‘My good lady, go home and sit still.’ Undaunted, Dr Elsie Inglis subsequently contacted Britain’s allies. France and Serbia, among others, were only too glad to accept the offer.

Funding Information:
Over the course of the First World War, the SWH successfully equipped and sent out fourteen hospital units, (almost) fully staffed by women. They were dispatched to France, Belgium, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Malta, Corsica, Russia and Romania. All those units, their staff and volunteers, were coordinated from the organization’s headquarters. A number of respectable local women, some of them doctors, ran the organization from Edinburgh. The committee was made up of a combination of committee members from pre-existing suffrage societies and personal relations of Dr Inglis. Initially, the organization was completely funded by private donations. Luckily, the SWH greatly benefitted from the NUWSS’s experience in fundraising and they managed to raise impressive amounts of money (Leneman ; Morrison and Parry ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, © 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


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