The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter to promote a more gender balanced world. 100 years on from some women getting to vote in UK General Elections the argument for equality is still being made. We stand on the shoulders of those courageous and indomitable women who came before us.
Women like Dr Mary McNeill who worked in hospitals in Serbia, Palestine, India and East Africa. This amazing woman made an outstanding contribution to her profession and to the campaign for women’s suffrage.
Mary Lauchline McNeill was born on the 27th of September 1874 to Janet Jean Dewar and Daniel McNeill. Her mother was the daughter of a Free Church Minister in Lochaber and sister to Dr Dewar, St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney. Mary’s father, Daniel McNeill had originally studied medicine but was a Minister in Holm Orkney.
Mary was the second oldest in a family of 12 who were to face tragedy when their mother died in 1897. Daniel McNeill was a warm hearted man with that strange Scottish mixture of science based logic and love of Celtic folklore. He was impulsive, emotional with a great sense of fun and like all his children – he loved music.
The McNeill’s believed in educating their children and after childhood education in Orkney Mary was sent to Milne’s School, Fochabers for her secondary education. This was one clever lassie who came 1st in the Aberdeen local examinations. Mary spent a year in Germany and a further year in Switzerland studying music and languages.
Her tertiary education was at Glasgow University where she graduated in medicine in 1905 M.B. Ch. B. After working as an assistant to a doctor in London Mary returned to Holm to practice medicine in Orkney.
Mary became very active in the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society which was established in 1909. The Orkney McNeill’s took a leading role in the cause of women’s suffrage both in Orkney and nationally. Mary often led discussions at the regular public meetings that were held. The Orcadian suffragists were not solely interested in votes for women but in wider issues of equality of pay and social reform.
Perhaps Mary would have stayed in Orkney pursing her medical practice in the islands but the outbreak of war took her off to Leicester where she took over from her doctor brother, Captain David McNeill, called up for war service with the army medical corps.
The British Army had rejected the offer of Dr Elsie Inglis to establish military hospitals.
Undaunted, Dr Inglis offered the service to both the French and Serbian Allies who welcomed the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). Dr Mary McNeill served in the SWH in Northern France, Salonika and Serbia.
The conditions in Serbia were appalling. Not only were Serbian forces engaged in a retreat and advance cycle of warfare there was also a huge humanitarian tragedy unfolding as civilians were caught up in the carnage. Disease and starvation most likely killed more people than actual direct military conflict.
For her heroic work in both Serbia and France Dr Mary McNeill was awarded the Médaille des Epidémies (en vermeil) and The Order of St Sava – the Serbian Red Cross medal. In addition to these two honours she received The Douseaus War Service Victory Medal.
In 1922 when the SWH was wound up its remaining funds were used to set up the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital. It opened in July 1925 with 20 beds and closed in 1988. It was sold off and reopened as a private nursing home. It subsequently was divided up into apartments and care units.
After World War 1 Dr Mary McNeill assisted Dr Torrance at the Scottish Mission Hospital, Tiberias, Palestine. From there Mary spent 3 years working in Bhandara, Central Provence, India.
Returning home , Mary accompanied her sister Margaret, who was going blind, on a trip to Europe. This included Lourdes, France and Rome, Italy for the winter. On the 18th of February 1925 the two sisters had a private audience with Pope Pius XI. It was not long after this that Dr Mary McNeil, brought up as a Presbyterian, converted to Catholicism.
Dr Mary MacNeill’s final years as a doctor were spent in a lonely medical outpost in Kamuli, Busogaland, Uganda. This was a hospital founded in 1914 by The Little Sisters of St. Francis. She was their first doctor. It is still there caring for patients regardless of race or religion.
Dr Mary McNeill died on the 10th of June 1928 having succumbed to typhoid. She had packed into her life of over half a century an amazing contribution to the health and wellbeing of others. Her selfless courage helping others in the most extreme conditions imaginable makes her a truly heroic figure.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame