Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross

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Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross
Elizabeth Ross.jpg
Graduation portrait
Born14 February 1878
London, England
Died14 February 1915(1915-02-14) (aged 37)
Kragujevac, Serbia
Cause of deathTyphus
EducationTain Royal Academy
University of Glasgow
Known forMedical work in Persia
Treatment of typhus in Serbia

Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross (14 February 1878 – 14 February 1915) was a Scottish physician who worked in Persia (presently Iran) among the Bakhtiari people. With training and a post-graduate qualification in tropical medicine, she responded to an appeal for doctors by the Serbian government in 1915 and treated Serbian casualties, most of whom were victims of typhus. Ross's life and work is commemorated by a plaque in her home town of Tain and her death anniversary is commemorated by ceremonies in Serbia, on 14 February.

Early life and family[edit]

Elizabeth Ross was born in Hampstead, London, to Scottish parents.[1] Her father, Donald Alexander MacBean Ross (1849–1893), manager of the London branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, was originally from Inverness, while her mother, Elizabeth Wilson Ross (née Ness) was from Tain.[1] When her father died, they moved to her mother's family in Tain, where she attended Tain Royal Academy. She went on to study medicine at Queen Margaret College, Glasgow, in 1896. This was some two years after Marion Gilchrist, the first woman to qualify in medicine from a university in Scotland, had graduated. Elizabeth Ross graduated MB ChB in 1901.[2]

Lucy, one of Ross's sisters, also graduated in medicine and became a doctor in York.[3] James Ness MacBean Ross, her brother, became a naval doctor and was awarded the Military Cross and bar and the Croix de Guerre during the First World War.[4]

Early career[edit]

Elizabeth Ross in Bakhtiari costume c. 1909[5]

After graduation Ross worked in Tain and then as a medical officer on the Scottish island of Colonsay. She then spent eighteen months in practice in East Ham in London.[6] She accepted a post in Isfahan province as assistant to an Armenian physician in the city of Isfahan before setting up in practice on her own. Returning on leave to the UK she passed the examination to gain the Diploma in Tropical Medicine. On return to Persia she met Samsam al-Saltane (1846–1930), prime minister of Persia and at his suggestion began to work with Bakhtiari people of south west Persia.[5] Adopting their customs and their dress, she became integrated to such an extent that she was made an honorary chief of the Bakhtiari.[3] She wrote a book describing her experience among them, A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiari Land, which was published posthumously with her brother James as editor. In this she provided "first-hand information as to the life, the point of view, and the changing conditions among these virile, if unstable, tribesmen."[7]

In 1913 she successfully applied for a job as a ship's surgeon on the SS Nigaristan to work her way home. She subsequently became ship's surgeon on the Glasgow Line SS Glenlogan,[6] a post which took her to India and Japan before she returned to Isfahan in 1914.[3]


On the outbreak of the First World War she read of the need for doctors in Serbia. The first phase of the Austro-Hungarian campaign against Serbia had resulted in the Serbian army suffering heavy casualties and a typhus epidemic among the military and the civilian populations. The epidemic reached its height in March 1915 when it was estimated that around 150,000 people were affected, of whom some 30,000 died.[8]

Elizabeth Ross arrived in January 1915 and volunteered to work in Kragujevac, the city worst affected by the epidemic, accounting for almost 10 percent of all cases in Serbia.[9] The large military hospital where she worked was overcrowded with typhus victims.[2] The conditions under which Ross worked were described by Louise Fraser, a nurse who visited her from the nearby Scottish Women's Hospital, who wrote that she had seen "some of the worst slum dwellings in Britain, but never anything to approach these wards in filth and squalor."[9]

At that time the louse-borne transmission of the disease was not fully understood, but the need for cleanliness, disinfection and isolation of victims was. These proved impossible to achieve in the military hospital at that time and the mortality rate from typhus in Kragujevac was particularly high, estimated by Colonel Hunter of the British Military Sanitary Mission to Serbia at 40–50%.[10]

Death and legacy[edit]

Serbian postage stamp of 2015 depicting Elizabeth Ross

Ross died from typhus on her 37th birthday, 14 February 1915, three weeks after arriving in Kragujevac.[6] She is buried in the cemetery in Kragujevac, the inscription on her gravestone including, in Serbian, the text: "In memory of Dr. E. Ross and two nurses who died in 1915 in our town while attending to our ill and wounded soldiers. Grateful soldiers from the Saloniki front. Renewed 1977."[11]

There is a plaque in her memory in St Duthac's Church, Tain. which includes the words "This tablet has been erected and hospital beds endowed in Serbia by public subscription in remembrance of the noble life and sacrifice of one whose home was for many years in Tain."[12]

In 2015 Ross was one of six British women to feature on a commemorative set of postage stamps issued by Serbia Post.[13]

The local Red Cross youth branch in Kragujevac is named the Dr Elizabeth Ross Society. At the annual commemoration ceremony they wear T-shirts bearing Ross's graduation photograph. Elizabeth Ross Street in Kragujevac is named after her.[14]

On 14 February, her birth and death date, memorial ceremonies are held each year in Kragujevac and at other locations in Serbia to commemorate her work for the people of Serbia.[3]


  1. ^ a b England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NVGW-LS4: 11 February 2018, Donald Alexander MacBean Ross in entry for Elizabeth Ness Ross)
  2. ^ a b "University of Glasgow :: Story :: Biography of Doctor Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross". universitystory.gla.ac.uk. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d "Dr Elizabeth Ross – the Scottish saint of Serbia". www.scotsman.com. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  4. ^ "Obituary Notices. J.N.M.Ross". Br Med J. 1 (5393): 1318–1319. 16 May 1964. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.5393.1318. ISSN 0007-1447.
  5. ^ a b "Brunei Gallery at SOAS: Bakhtiari Kuch – Elisabeth Macbean Ross – the 'Lady Doctor of Bakhtiari Land'". www.soas.ac.uk. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  6. ^ a b c Obituary notice (13 March 1915). "Dr. Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross". Br Med J. 1 (2828): 491. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.2828.491-b. ISSN 0007-1447. PMC 2301916.
  7. ^ Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross (1921). A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiari Land. L. Parsons.
  8. ^ Soubbotitch, V. (1918). "A Pandemic of Typhus in Serbia in 1914 and 1915". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 11 (Sect Epidemiol State Med): 31–39. ISSN 0035-9157. PMC 2066452. PMID 19980276.
  9. ^ a b Fraser, L.E. (1915). Diary of a dresser in the Serbian unit of the Scottish Women's Hospital. Edinburgh: Blackwoods Magazine. pp. 777–780.
  10. ^ Hunter, William (1920). "The Serbian Epidemics of Typhus and Relapsing Fever in 1915: Their Origin, Course, and Preventive Measures employed for their Arrest". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 13 (Sect Epidemiol State Med): 29–158. ISSN 0035-9157. PMC 2152681. PMID 19981291.
  11. ^ "Dr Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross". Ross and Cromarty Heritage.
  12. ^ "Plaque to Dr Elizabeth Ross | Mapping Memorials to Women in Scotland". womenofscotland.org.uk. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  13. ^ "Serbian stamps honour WW1 heroines". BBC News Scotland. 8 December 2015. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  14. ^ "Dr Elizabeth MacBean Ross". Tain Through Time. Retrieved 22 January 2019.

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