Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) was the third ever registered female doctor in Britain. She spent a great deal of time pushing for the 1876 Enabling Act which permitted women to practise as doctors in Britain. Born in Hastings in 1840, Sophia was a rebel from the start.
According to the General Medical Council women medical students have now started to outnumber men. Hard to imagine that only just over a hundred and fifty years ago medicine was a staunchly male career, and the idea of a woman in an operating theatre or consulting room would have caused widespread hilarity or panic.
By the 1870s many women were starting to agitate for the right to study medicine and become doctors. The fact that all doctors were men was offputting, many people reasoned. In an era where modesty, long skirts and sexual segregation prevailed, most women found the prospect of discussing intimate symptoms with a man offputting and a barrier to seeking medical attention. Wasn’t it high time, many were starting to think, to allow women to join the medical ranks?
One of the people who thought it certainly was and single-handedly took on the medical establishment was a Sussex woman, Sophia Jex-Blake. As the daughter of a wealthy family she wasn’t expected to pursue any career and, in comparison to her brother who was educated at Rugby school, the young Sophia wasn’t offered much in the way of serious education. Frustrated, Sophia wrangled with her family until her father finally permitted her to attend London’s Queens College, where ladies were allowed to attend classes if they were chaperoned. If the Jex-Blakes thought that this would get it out of Sophia’s system they were wrong. She ended up staying on for two years to teach Maths, an arrangement her father would only accept if she declined to receive a salary, wage earning being unbecoming to one of their class. It was during a trip to the USA, however, when Sophia crossed paths in Boston with a pioneering female surgeon, Lucy Sewell, that Sophia found her true calling: she would be a doctor, she decided. No matter that British women weren’t permitted to practise medicine, Sophia had made her mind up, come what may.
The obstacles came thick and fast. Applying to Edinburgh University Medical School in 1869 – the same year that she published an essay entitled ‘Medicine as a Profession for Women’, Sophia was politely refused, on the grounds that the University couldn’t make the necessary arrangements ‘in the interest of one lady’. It would take more than a gentle refusal to put Sophia off, however. Reasoning that the university’s rejection was down to her being ‘just one lady’, Sophia decided to get round that problem for them by seeing if any more ladies wanted to join her. She put adverts in newspapers and six further women, who also wanted to study Medicine, came forward. Thus was born ‘the Edinburgh Seven’, the first seven female medical students ever to be admitted to a British university. From Day One the women had an uphill struggle. Not only did they have to pay higher fees because they had to be tutored separately from the men, they had to prove themselves against a mindset that held women intellectually inferior to men and lacking in the stamina needed to practise medicine. They also had to deal with the hostility of tutors and fellow students who assumed they were only studying out of frivolous fancy rather than serious motivation. Sometimes this hostility spilled into aggression with the women reporting being spat and shouted names at, and intimidated. When one of the Seven, Edith Pechey, who would go on to run hospitals in India, came top of a scholarship exam, the prize was awarded to a lower scoring man for fear of rocking the boat. On 18th November 1870 when the women tried to enter the Surgeon’s Hall to take an important exam, they found the door barricaded and missiles and mud thrown at them. This incident, which became known as the Surgeons Hall Riot,
commemorated by a Historic Scotland plaque in 2015, was widely reported in the press. Times were changing and the public admired the bravery of the women. Notably, Charles Darwin allied himself on the side of the women. Unfortunately, despite growing public interest and support, the University of Edinburgh, baulked at the final hurdle. Although the women had put in the work, the university declined to award them their degrees. Most of the women were obliged to go abroad to qualify. After a spell in London campaigning for women’s rights to study medicine and helping to set up the London School of Medicine, Sophia went to Berne in Switzerland, passing her exams (in German) in 1873.
In 1876, thanks to campaigning, awareness raising by Sophia and others, the UK Medical Act enabling examining bodies to treat both sexes equally was passed.
Sophia Jex-Blake took her final qualifications at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland which permitted her to obtain her license to practise. She became the third registered female doctor in Britain, and when she returned to Edinburgh to help set up a free hospital for women and children, Scotland’s first. She later opened a medical school for women in that city. When she retired she remembered her Sussex roots and came to live in Rotherfield where she died and is buried in St Denys Churchyard. Her partner, Dr Margaret Todd, recognising how key a figure in women’s medicine Sophia was, wrote a book about her life to protect her legacy and when she died herself left a significant sum of money towards the advancement of women in medicine.
In July 2019 Edinburgh University awarded posthumous degrees to the Edinburgh Seven. Student, Simran Piya, who accepted a degree on behalf of Sophia Jex-Blake said: “We are honoured to accept these degrees on behalf of our predecessors, who are an inspiration to us all.”
Blog by Louise Peskitt
Join Louise for a talk about the pioneering female doctors of Sussex at 11.30am on 15 February, part of the Change the World: Women in Science Free Day at Brighton Museum