Edit Magazine

Representing the Edinburgh Seven

In July, seven current students accepted posthumous honorary degrees on behalf of the first female undergraduate medical students to matriculate at the University.

Group of Edinburgh current students who accepted posthumous degrees on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven.

Summer is a time of graduation ceremonies at the University. This July was particularly special as the first group of undergraduate female students to matriculate at a British university was honoured with posthumous honorary degrees.

Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Sophia Jex-Blake, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne enrolled to study medicine at Edinburgh in 1869. However, their presence was protested by a number of male peers and a riot errupted at Surgeons' Hall when the women attempted to sit an anatomy exam in 1870. Despite growing support for the Edinburgh Seven, as the group came to be known, a court ruling eventually passed which prevented women from studying at the University and they were denied a graduation ceremony.  

Although the Edinburgh Seven's own campaign was unsuccessful, it shone a light on the topic of women's education rights and support for the cause continued to grow among the media, prominent figures, members of the public and politicians. In 1877 new legislation passed, allowing women to study at university.  

The Edinburgh Seven were each awarded a posthumous honorary MBChB at the University's McEwan Hall on Saturday 6 July 2019, 150 years after they first matriculated, with seven current students at the Edinburgh Medical School accepting the degrees on their behalf.

Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University, said on the day: "We are delighted to confer the degrees rightfully owed to this incredible group of women. The segregation and discrimination that the Edinburgh Seven faced might belong to history, but barriers still exist that deter too many talented young people from succeeding at university. We must learn from these women and strive to widen access for all who have the potential to succeed."



Representing Sophia Jex-Blake: Simran Piya, Year 3. 

Current student Simran Piya accepting a degree on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven.

"Prior to learning about the Edinburgh Seven, I feel I took the ability to study medicine and get an education for granted. They were pelted with mud and ridiculed by their peers just for wanting to learn and help people. Despite the challenges they faced, they moved forward with determination and established changes globally by putting forward women’s right to education at the forefront of politics.

"I hope to take forward the legacy that the Edinburgh Seven established and continue to fight for their endeavours by being a positive female role model in a field like cardiology and by volunteering in countries like Nepal where the gender divide in education is still a problematic issue in remote areas of the country."

Representing Matilda Chapman: Caitlyn Taylor, Year 2.

Current student Caitlyn Taylor accepting a degree on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven.

"I think it's so important we follow in the footsteps of the Edinburgh Seven and break down the barriers that maybe still prevent people from accessing higher education. I come from an area in rural Scotland where the progression rates to university or further study is very low. I think it's so important that we show some of these talented young people that they have the potential to do anything they want to do.

"I find it hard to study medicine now, with all of the resources and support that is available to me. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it must have been for seven women experiencing constant persecution. I find it humbling that throughout this they continued to fight for equal education rights for women. It has made me think a lot more about how I can better support the causes I believe in."

Representing Emily Bovell: Izzie Dighero, Year 4.

Current student Izzie Dighero accepting a degree on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven.

"Faced by astounding ignorance and adverse circumstance, the Edinburgh Seven were committed to challenging the belief that women couldn’t train to become doctors. It was their initial actions that laid the way for so much progress for women within the medical profession over the past 150 years. Their sense of compassion, bravery and drive is truly inspiring.

"I hope this gesture will draw attention to how the Edinburgh Seven’s contribution to medicine still reverberates today as well as acting as a spotlight to highlight some of the ongoing gender-based issues in healthcare."

Representing Mary Anderson: Mei Yen Liew, Year 2.

Current student Mei Yen Liew accepting a degree on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven.

"Their tenacity to succeed academically and pursue a career in medicine greatly inspires me. The many challenges faced motivated them to persevere instead of giving up midway, and they eventually completed their medical studies.

"The medical profession extends beyond a career – it is a calling. I hope I will be able to best serve society through this profession. I aspire to delve deeper into medical research, while helping to improve the quality of life at the front lines of healthcare."

Representing Isabel Thorne: Megan Cameron, Year 4.

Current student Megan Cameron accepting a degree on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven.

"It would have been very easy for these women to live a quieter life as practising doctors after the fight they had to endure to qualify but instead they continued to fight to ensure the future of women in medicine and that is admirable above all else.

"At present, I have no idea what direction I want my medical degree to take me, I change my mind everyday! I might decide to become involved in general practice, in senior management or even to follow in the footsteps of Dr Catherine Calderwood and become Chief Medical Officer for Scotland. The important thing is that I have the choice and this was only made possible by the work the Edinburgh Seven started and that has been continued by many other amazing women since."

Representing Edith Pechey: Ella Crowther, Year 1.

"I find it so inspiring that the seven were absolutely determined to follow their passions and study medicine even when many people believed they were not capable enough. I am very grateful to them for paving the way not only for female medical students, but for all female students because equal opportunities for education are so important.
"I think it is important for us to try and improve on the work of people who came before us, so recognising the achievements of the Seven when previously people have not is an obvious and vital step in honouring their successes."

Representing Helen Evans: Sorna Paramananthan, Year 3.

Current medical student Sorna Paramananthan accepting a posthumous degree on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven

"They fought for what they knew they deserved, allowing me to live in a place where my right to education isn’t even questionable. 

"I think a lot of other institutions might have glossed over something like this in their history, which is why I’m happy that the University of Edinburgh has at least acknowledged an unjust past, in the hopes of raising awareness for a better future."

Find out more

Read the full student interviews and find out more about events planned for the 150th anniversary of the Edinburgh Seven.

Read more Edit supplements

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Photos by Douglas Robertson.