Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven
Sophia Jex-Blake led the Edinburgh Seven, the first women to matriculate at a British university, in the fight to allow women to qualify as doctors in Britain.
Sophia Jex-Blake's career as a trail blazer for the rights of women to practice medicine in Britain began when she wrote asking Professor JJ Balfour, Dean of the Medical Faculty at the University of Edinburgh, permission to attend medical lectures during the summer session. This went to a vote.
Sir James Young Simpson supported her, as did Professor James Syme, but on the condition that women were restricted to obstetrics and gynaecology. And Robert Christison, Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, said the poor intellectual ability and stamina of women would lower professional standards.
Against the odds, the vote went in her favour.
Vote appealed and overturned
All seemed well until Claud Muirhead, Senior Assistant Physician at the Royal Infirmary, supported by a petition by around 200 students, appealed to the University Court to overturn the vote.
Since it was assumed men and women would be taught anatomy and surgery separately, it was decided that teaching a separate class just for her would be too difficult and expensive. The decision to allow Jex-Blake to study medicine was overturned.
David Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature and David Russel, editor of the Scotsman, were friends and supporters of Jex-Blake. Masson, who represented Jex-Blake, thought the University Court could be persuaded that the expense of teaching women separately could be made viable if there were more women to teach.
Russel published the story of the controversy in the Scotsman newspaper, which encouraged more women to apply. And they did.
The Edinburgh Seven
Soon there were seven women matriculating in medicine. These were Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, and Helen Evans. Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell joined shortly afterwards. They became known as ‘the Edinburgh Seven.’ Jex-Blake and Pechey moved into lodgings at 15 Buccleuch Place and this became a hub of activity.
They matriculated in 1869, and the University promptly charged them higher fees. A loophole where University teachers were permitted but not required to teach women meant the women had to arrange lectures for themselves, Jex-Blake leading. This was only the start of their problems.
Their classes, which were taken separately, were graded differently to the men even though the lectures were identical, resulting in diminished scholarship opportunities. The everyday jealousy the male students exhibited was vile. The men made life as difficult as possible for the Edinburgh Seven, shutting doors in their faces, howling at them and behaving aggressively. Events came to a head at their anatomy exam, when several hundred male students pelted the women with mud and other objects as they arrived. The women struggled through the crowd until a supporter unbolted a door to hurry them inside. During the exam the rioters shoved a live sheep into the hall, causing further chaos.
Edinburgh newspapers covered the riot and this turned public support towards the women. But at the University, the tide was against them. As they continued their fight to be taught and for access to wards, the University continued to discrimminate, rejecting them just four years after their matriculation.
The battle moved to London. Jex-Blake was instrumental is setting up the London School of Medicine for Women. But there was still nowhere for women to sit their exams until 1876 when the Enabling Bill gave medical examining bodies the right to admit women. Jex-Blake and Pechey did their MD in Berne, Switzerland, then sat the Irish exams with the College of Physicians in Dublin, finally becoming registered doctors in Britain.
What happened to the Edinburgh Seven?
1874-1877: Ran London School of Medicine for Women.
1886: Opened Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, as Director and Dean. Jex-Blake’s powerful nature began to get her into trouble. Students Ina and Grace Cadell felt Jex-Blake was too domineering, and were joined by student Elsie Inglis in opening a competing school, the Medical College for Women, based in Chambers St. When the College gained access to the Royal Infirmary wards for teaching, the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women could no longer compete. It closed in 1898.
1878: Opened Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women worked there until 1899, retired to farm. Died 1912.
Worked for hospitals in Leeds and the Cama Hospital for Women and Children in Bombay. Was later appointed to the senate at the University of Bombay.
Thwarted by family commitments, she didn’t take her MD at Berne, instead taking the role in 1877 of honourary secretary at the London School of Medicine for Women, holding the role till 1906.
Gained MD in Paris in 1877, sat Irish exams for medical registration. Worked at New Hospital for Women in London from 1878 to 1881. Lived out the rest of her days in Nice using warmth of location to help alleviate TB.
1871, married Alexander Russel, the editor of the Scotsman. Had three children with him. On his death in 1876 became member of executive committee for Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.
1871, married William Ayrton, Professor of Physics at the University of Edinburgh. They moved to Tokyo, where she founded a school of Midwifery. Later in London she studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, got her MD from Paris in 1879 and sat final exams at the College of Physicians in Dublin. Set up private practice.
1871, married Mr Marshall. He died a few months later and she joined the London School of Medicine for Women to complete her studies. She got her MD in Paris in 1879 and passed the Irish exams to gain registration. Worked in New Hospital for Women in London until 1895, then moved to Cannes due to ill health.
The University of Edinburgh allowed women to graduate in 1894 and the first doctors graduated in 1896. They still had to organise their own tuition.