Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912)
British physician and pioneer for medical education for women, Sophia Jex-Blake studied medicine at Edinburgh but was forced to take her degree in Switzerland.
Hastings born and privately educated, Sophia Jex-Blake experienced resistance to her aspirations early in life. Initially blocked from attending college by her parents, who held very traditional views on education, and only allowed to work as a maths tutor if she didn’t accept a salary, it was no surprise that she found herself drawn towards those campaigning for the rights of women.
After a period spent studying with private tutors in Edinburgh, she went to America in 1865 to learn more about women's education and met the activist for health and social reform Dr Lucy Sewell, resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women. It was this meeting and the time spent as an assistant at the hospital that set her on a path to becoming a pioneer for medical education for women in Britain.
Having decided to become a physician Jex-Blake first sought opportunities in America but was refused entry to Harvard because she was a woman and, before she was able to enrol at a new medical college being established by Elizabeth Blackwell in New York, was forced to return to the UK after the death of her father.
An Edinburgh education
No English medical school would accept women but, after gathering together four other women, who all passed the matriculation examination, she was admitted to Edinburgh University Medical School in 1869.
It was a small victory, opposition from lecturers, students and the public made life and teaching difficult and on one occasion this opposition escalated into a riot.
On the afternoon of Friday 18th November 1870, we walked to the Surgeon's Hall, where the anatomy examination was to be held. As soon as we reached the Surgeon's Hall we saw a dense mob filling up the road… The crowd was sufficient to stop all the traffic for an hour. We walked up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed in our faces by a number of young men.
Undeterred by such actions Sophia continued with her training and sat her exams but was defeated in the end by procedure and paperwork with the University refusing to award degrees to women.
A step forward
As well helping to establish the London School of Medicine for Women, she continued to campaign and to study. She was awarded an MD by the University of Berne in 1877 and qualified as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland later the same year. Sophia Jex-Blake became only the third woman in Britain registered with the General Medical Council.
Returning to Edinburgh in the 1880s, she practised privately and founded the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children (later the Bruntsfield Hospital). In 1886, she founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and supported the Russell Gurney Enabling Bill (1876), which allowed medical examination boards to admit women as candidates.
In 1894 the University of Edinburgh admitted women to graduate in medicine.
Sophia Jex-Blake continued to campaign for women's suffrage until her death at Windydene near Tunbridge Wells on 7th January 1912. She is commemorated by the University with a plaque located at Teviot Place, on the East wall of the main entrance of the Medical School Building.