Royal Columbian Hospital’s First Woman Doctor

Dr. Ella Scarlett Synge wearing the uniform of a colonel.
Calgary Daily Herald Jan 10, 1916.


Hon. Ella Campbell Scarlett, born November 22, 1864 in England had high military standards in her genes. Her father, Gen. James Scarlett, 3rd Baron Abinger, in his early days was colonel of the British regiment at Quebec, while her mother, Helen Magruder, was the daughter of Commodore G A Magruder of the US Navy, and her uncle, Gen. Scarlett led the heavy brigade at Balaclava, Crimea.

In 1897 she studied medicine at the London School of Medicine for Women and the Royal Free Hospital for five years, and then was appointed physician to the court of the Emperor of Korea. After three years, she became physician to the refugee camp at Norval’s Point in South Africa, then medical officer of the Government Normal College of Bloemfontein, and the High School for Girls in 1903. She also served, by government appointment, on the Concentration Camps Commission in the Boer War. She and Percy Hamilton Synge were married in 1901 and divorced in 1921.

She moved to Canada in 1907, practicing in Edmonton for five years before moving to New Westminster where she opened an office in the Westminster Trust building. Dr. Scarlett-Synge was described in “British Columbia From the Earliest Times to the Present” during that time. “Capable, earnest and conscientious in the performance of her professional duties, she inspires confidence in her patients by the strongly developed human side of her character, which makes friends for her everywhere and creates the mutual understanding between doctor and patient to necessary to effect a cure.”

She organized the first Women’s Volunteer Corp in Canada in 1917, shortly after the plan was introduced in England. She left Canada that year to take a position as Medical Officer of Health in northern Serbia, where she had 12 villages under her care. On her way to Serbia, Dr. Scarlett-Synge organized a Volunteer Corps at Toronto, Montreal and other eastern points.

All of this would have been quite startling to members of the English high society who had known her in her early years. Before she left for Korea and again when she went to South Africa, a couple of newspaper articles were written about her. The Star of July 28, 1900, said “Miss Scarlett, who is a good natural historian intends to study the flora and fauna of Korea, as a recreation in the intervals of attending the sick and suffering. She takes her gun and her bicycle with her, as well as her camera, and intends to be “very busy all round”. In course of time Miss Scarlett means to return to London. But not yet – not until she has made a name for herself, and also some money. Then she intends to come home, take a snug little house in a good neighbourhood, nail a brass plate to the door, and – let us hope – start a brougham to take her on her daily rounds. All things are possible to her who knows both how to wait and to work.”

The Washington (DC) Times of June 5, 1903 explained that, “after figuring for three seasons in London society she commenced to find life of Mayfair flat, stale and unprofitable, and accordingly determined to strike out on a line of her own. Her first impulse was to study music as a professional singer, but at the last moment abandoned the plan and turned her attention to medicine.” It also described her as “a bright-eyed little brunette, full of go and pluck, who, during her thirty-five years of life, has managed to accumulate a goodly amount of experience and adventure.”

They might have had difficulty believing that less than fifteen years later, this ‘bright-eyed little brunette’ would be described in an international publication as “having gained fame and reputation on four continents” and “her wide experience assures her of a most distinguished position among her medical brethren and her prestige entitles her to the important practice which she is enjoying.” Hon. Ella Scarlett-Synge, M.D. – the first woman to practice medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital.

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2 Comments on “Royal Columbian Hospital’s First Woman Doctor”

  1. Richard Merchant Says:

    Seems Ella was a woman of many accomplishments… Google reports 17000 hits on her name.

    THis is an interesting link too: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP19150602.2.113&l=mi&e=——-10–1—-0–

    At the bottomof the page image,there is a report of Ella promoting the establishment of a women’s defense corps in Vancouver… this reported in a New Zealand paper!!


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