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Sophia Jex-Blake, the Edinburgh Seven, and How to Become A Doctor in the 19th century

By Edie Cay
March 12, 2024
The Surgeons' Hall in Edinburgh

As a child, I remember being told a riddle: “A boy is in a car accident. His father is the driver, and he too is injured. When they get to the hospital, the boy is taken to the operating room. The surgeon says, ‘I cannot operate on this child. He’s my son.’ Who is the surgeon?”
While I’ve not posed this question to anyone recently, I feel like a fair amount of people now would look at me like I was an idiot. Obviously, the boy’s mother is the surgeon. It was a riddle designed to expose bias. But now with over half of the medical field being occupied by women, with female physicians gaining ground as 37% of practicing physicians, it isn’t unusual now to walk into a clinic and find female faces at reception, intake, and your actual medical care. (Gender skew of Nurse Practitioners is 89% female, 11% male, while Physician Assistants is 67% female, and 33% male.)

Not Always Like This

But of course, like all things, healthcare used to be a male-only field. Which is how we get to the incredibly frustrating story of Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven.

Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake. She looks like someone interrupted her work for this portrait, and she is tired of it. Image comes from Wellcome Images.

Sophia Jex-Blake was born in the south of England in 1840. Her father was a lawyer, and thus she was of a higher station than many. She was home educated until age eight, and then attended a few schools until enrolling at Queens College in London amid her parents’ objections. There, she was offered a post (while still a student!) as a mathematics tutor—except she had to work without pay, because her father forbade her from earning money. Because earning money was beneath her.
After the American Civil War, Sophia travelled to the United States and met one of the first female doctors in America, Dr. Lucy Ellen Sewall. There, Sophia worked as an assistant to Dr. Sewall and decided she wanted to become a physician as well.

A Direction and a Dream

The University of Edinburgh was one of the most progressive medical schools in the United Kingdom at the time, heralding incredible discoveries such as germ theory, so Sophia attempted to matriculate.

But the University said no, we have no facilities for a woman, and we won’t make a whole new school just for you.

So Sophia gathered up some friends and acquaintances, going so far as to put an advertisement in the newspaper, and though it was sometimes more than seven women, they petitioned the medical school to let them in. They had the education, they had the money, why not?

Sophia had argued in an essay that since no objective test for mental acuities had ever occurred for men and women, women should have access to this “fair field and no favor”—saying that women should be taught as men, given the opportunities as men, and if they fail, then they fail. Sophia knew she wouldn’t fail.

In 1869, the University of Edinburgh said fine, but you can’t take classes with the men. You’ll have to figure out some other way to get the professors to teach you, and only if they agree to it. You’ll take the same tests as the men, but at a different time, because women are a distraction.

Meanwhile, at the University…

Some professors refused to teach women, considering it beneath them, much as Sophia’s father thought earning a wage was beneath his daughter. Some believed it to be a detriment to the womens’ constitutions—that women were simply fundamentally unsuited for rigorous study. That they would be damaged by it. I guess a woman’s brain might explode? Leak out her ears? Mess up her hair?

One of the faculty was particularly loud about it, a jerk named Sir Robert Christison. (Was he once a physician for Queen Victoria? A top toxicologist? The first to describe renal anemia? Sure. But he also was so threatened by seven women that he did everything in his power as a teacher, doctor, and aristocrat to hurt them. That, my friend, is a misogynist.)

But consistently, the women—all of them—were in the top ten percent of the test scorers. And that made some of the male students furious.

While the medical school might have been progressive, this was the same town that two hundred years previous, had lauded John Knox and his pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, which yes, attacked female monarchs in particular, but also argued that women were only in the image of God with respect to animals, while men were in the actual image of God. So this is a town with some serious issues about women.

As time went on, and the women began to clearly excel, male students freaked out. They followed the women home, sent threatening letters, groped them, had fireworks set off at their doors at all hours, threw mud at them as they entered the school. When that harassment didn’t make the women turn tail and quit, the misogynists rioted. They literally rioted.

To recap, to be a woman at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 you got:

  1. Education (but you had to set up your own classes at your own times, and had to pay extra or persuade faculty to actually teach you)
  2. Threatening letters
  3. Followed home (and not in a kind way)
  4. Groped
  5. Fireworks set off at your door to make you think someone set a bomb at your house
  6. Assaulted with mud/rotten vegetables/garbage
  7. Societal disapproval

As a man at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 you got:

  1. Education

The Surgeons’ Hall Riot

The male medical students rioted because the seven women who, despite everyone telling them they couldn’t, survived death threats, harassment, and physical attacks, were good at school.

On November 18th, 1870, 200 men—some students, some Auld Reekie residents with a dram or two in them—chased the seven women to the gates of the Surgeons’ Hall, where they were to sit for their anatomy exam. The women were pressed against the iron gates as the mob surged forward, pelting them with mud, rotten vegetables, and garbage. Finally, a member of the janitorial staff opened the gates and the women were allowed inside, able to sit for their anatomy exam. Still angry, some men were able to break into the hall and further shout abuses. Then they loosed sheep into the exam room, hoping to distract them.

As if the whole damn day hadn’t been a distraction.

Finally, at the end of the exam, a brigade of Irishmen escorted the women home safely.

After the Anatomy Exam

One might think that was enough. But it wasn’t for these misogynists. No, they petitioned the school and the courts. When Sophia pointed out one of the main instigators of the riot, he sued her, claiming defamation. The court found in favor of him, although they only fined Sophia one farthing instead of the 1,000 pounds he’d asked for. (I don’t even want to type out his name because he doesn’t deserve it.)

In the end, the medical school denied the women their degrees, despite all seven of them having top marks. With no other recourse, including no refunds to the school that had promised them degrees if they completed the same work as the male students, they disbanded, and obtained degrees from various other universities around Europe. They often repeated coursework, spending time and money they’d already given to the University of Edinburgh. Sophia herself obtained her doctorate from the University of Berne, Switzerland, in 1877.

During those years, Sophia worked hard with other groups to help establish a women’s medical school in London, (1874), and change laws so that qualified students could attend universities regardless of their gender, (1876).

The Return of the Yas Queen!

In the end, Doctor Sophia Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh in 1878, and hung out her shingle. The powerful medical establishment in Edinburgh still opposed her, and they tried to take her license from her, but in the end, she prevailed. Her clinic for women was staffed entirely by women.

By 1886, Sophia established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. In 1892, The University of Edinburgh began accepting female students.

In 2015, a plaque was unveiled to commemorate the Surgeons’ Hall riot.

…but it wasn’t until 2019 that the seven women who changed medicine in the UK were awarded those long sought-after degrees from the University of Edinburgh.

Sophia Jex-Blake finished her coursework, got good grades, and it took her 146 years to get her diploma. That’s some resilience.

Edie Cay

Written by Edie Cay

Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website, www.ediecay.com

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2 Comments

  1. Margaret Pinard

    I love how this reads, so in your voice, snappy and witty and incensed. Great article!

    Reply
  2. Christie Stratos

    An outstanding post on an outstanding woman. The things women have had to put up with just to be treated with respect, never mind to earn equality (still not there), never ceases to amaze me. Thanks for the excellent research and great info!

    Reply

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