This year the theme for International Women’s Day is MAKE IT HAPPEN. To join in the celebrations we thought we would commemorate the small group of medical graduates of the University of Glasgow who challenged societal values to become the first cohort of Great British female doctors.
Between 1894 and 1914 there were only 168 women Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MB ChB) graduates at the University, compared to 1,483 men. Upon the outbreak of the Great War these women had raised the standard of female education and were campaigning for the right to vote.
Glasgow’s first female medical graduate, Marion Gilchrist (MB ChB 1894), and the Queen Margaret Suffrage Society were passionately debating women’s voting rights.Included in this ongoing debate was graduate Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross (MB ChB 1901), who went on to travel the world practicing medicine. Our heroine spent her early years in Tain, in the Highlands, before her family moved to London in 1883, where her father was the Manager of the London branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. In 1896, at the age of 18, Elizabeth Ross attended the University of Glasgow to study Medicine.
Immediately after graduating, Dr Elizabeth Ross spent some time in Berlin before working as a medical assistant in East Ham, London and later, as a Medical Officer on the small Island of Colonsay, Scotland. The immediate public reaction to women medical graduates was generally one of disapproval. Many graduates faced opposition when appointed to posts. Dr Ross realised that there were very few job opportunities openly employing female medical graduates and began to seek positions aboard.
In 1908 she managed to get a post in Persia (modern day Iran) as a Medical Practitioner assisting an Armenian doctor. However, when he refused to give her any holidays Ross travelled to Bakhtiari where the local tribe expressed a desire to have a British doctor. Astonished by the lack of prejudice for a female medical graduate, Dr Ross quickly made this her base from which she travelled around Persia visiting tribes and acting as a temporary military doctor. She had many adventures in Persia, and was twice lost in the desert and ‘robbed by brigands’. On one occasion, the British Government had to assist to restore her to safety.
Wanting to see more of the world Elizabeth left Persia and visited her sister in the city of Madras, on the east coast of India (present day Chennai), before going on to work as a ship’s doctor on a cargo ship, which sailed from Madras to London. After a brief break in Great Britain to get a Diploma in Tropical Medicine, Ross continued to work as a ship’s doctor, but this time on a voyage to India and Japan.
In early 1914, Dr Elizabeth Ross returned to Persia, which she dearly loved, and took up an appointment from the Persian Government there until the outbreak of the First World War. While trying hard to contribute to the war effort, Dr Elizabeth Ross was invited by the Russian Government to assist the wounded in Serbia. After some delays when her travel documents got stolen, she arrived and initially worked at Nish before moving on to Kragujevac Military Hospital. It was here that Dr Elizabeth Ross voluntarily took charge of the fever patients. Tragically after her first week of attending patients, she caught the fever herself.
In a letter to Dr Ross’s sister, Lucy, dated 11 February 1915, a friend of Elizabeth noted:
I have seen her several times since she took ill & the day before yesterday when I saw her last, she seemed a little better. I hope to see her today again
Sadly, after thirteen days of illness Dr Ross died on 14 February 1915, her 37th birthday. Her life and sacrifice are commemorated on a brass plaque in St Duthus Church and in an annual service held in Kragujevac. Dr Elizabeth Ross is also the only women to be commemorated on the University of Glasgow’s Roll of Honour in the Memorial Chapel.Her fellow students at the University paid tribute to her in a special Queen Margaret College edition of Glasgow University Magazine in 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.
Regardless of the prejudice against women medical graduates, Dr Elizabeth Ross made her dream happen. She sought places where her knowledge and skills were more important than her gender. She was part of a group of early female graduates who let nothing stand in their way of achieving their dreams of a medical career and did not let opposition get the better of them. This cohort of women were party to convincing men that women were worthy of the right to vote and, in 1918, women over the age of 30, who met property qualifications, were given the right to vote, just as the female medical graduates had hoped when they offered their knowledge and skills to war medicine.
On this International Women’s Day, #makeithappen, whatever the odds, just like our #UofGinspiringwomen.
For further information about the University of Glasgow’s Great War Project, please click here.
Sources: Email correspondence with Tain and District Museum; ‘Elizabeth Ness McBean Ross’, University Story (http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/ww1-biography/?id=2845 , accessed 27/02/2015); ‘Elizabeth Ness Ross MB ChB, Glasgow. Russian Army Medical Service: Died of Typhus Fever in Serbia, February 1915’ Glasgow University Magazine p189 [GB 248 DC198/1/23]; Obituary, British Medical Journal, March 13 1915, (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2301916/pdf/brmedj07222-0039c.pdf accessed 27/02/2015)
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