Sunday, April 1, 2012

"A personality seldom to be met with"

A visit to the Love & Devotion Exhibition currently on at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, featuring exquisite illustrations from the history and epic myths of the Persian, Ottoman and Mughal Empires reignited my interest in women who were drawn to inhospitable or dangerous foreign locations that would have been well out of their comfort zones.

I have written about several of them previously, such as Alexine Tinne, and recently added to my collection of books on the topic with Barbara Hodgson's Dreaming of East - Western Women and the Exotic Allure of the Orient, a lavishly illustrated work that features many other adventurous women, some of whose names still resonate today, such as Gertrude Bell, Jane Digby, Isobel Burton and Hester Stanhope, and who have all been much written about.

But it's the other women who are less well-known that also intrigue me. 

The new graduate (Glasgow University)
One whose adventures had a more altruistic and practical basis than some of the romantic notions of earlier travellers, was Elizabeth Ness Macbean Ross, a pioneering woman doctor who had a short but valuable life that is still celebrated today in Kragujevac, Serbia, of all places. She was born in London in 1878 (although her family home was at Tain in the Scottish Highlands) and graduated in medicine in 1901.

Dr Ross in Bakhtiari costume c. 1909 (Tain Museum)
Dr Ross in a ship's surgeon uniform (Tain Museum)
A copy of the book she wrote about her Persian experiences A Lady Doctor in Bahktiariland is available to read online. These ancient nomadic people are said to be descended from the mythical kings of Persia (Iran) and their country remains enigmatic and remote, perhaps even more than it ever was given the current fragile state of affairs in that part of the world. 

More detailed biographical details of Dr Ross can be read both here and here. Also see this news report from 2010.

Brave and unconcerned for her own health, Dr Ross undertook charge of the typhus wards in Serbia in 1915 only to succumb herself to the disease. 

Here is the obituary that appeared in the 13 March, 1915 British Medical Journal.
[The death of] Dr. ELIZABETH NESS MACBEAN ROSS, daughter of the late
Mr. MacBean Ross, manager of the London branch of the
Commercial Bank of Scotland, has just been announced.
In 1901 Dr. Ross took the degrees of M.B. and Ch.B.
Glasg. and in 1914 the diploma of Tropical Medicine.
She was medical officer at Colonsay for some months,
and practised for a year and a half in East Ham;
she then went to Persia, holding appointnments in Ispahan,
Shiraz, and the land of the Bakhtiari, a semi-civilized
tribe inhabiting the mountains and upland valleys
between Ispahan and Khuramahlad. Dr. Ross wrote a
history of the tribe. Her health failing, she went to
Japan as surgeon in a Glasgow Line boat, and returned to
Ispahan in April, 1914. In January she went back to
Europe and procceded to Servia [Serbia] where she worked first
at Nish and then at Kragujevatz. At the latter place she
volunteered to take charge of the typhus wards; after a
week of heavy work she contracted the disease, and died
after an illness of thirteen days. The esteem which she
and her colleagues of the Scottish unit have won was
shown by the remarkable demonstration made at her
funeral, which was attended by many Servian nurses
and officers. The native clergy took part in the funeral
procession, which was headed by the band of the Guards
of the Crown Prince of Servia; a service was read at
the graveside by Colonel Harrison, the British military
attache. Dr. Ross leaves a widowed mother, two
brothers, and five sisters; one brother and one sister are
members of the medical profession.

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