The Edinburgh Seven
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
Sophia Jex-Blake - Photo taken from Wikipedia
The Edinburgh Seven were among the first female students to be enrolled into a British University
In March 1869, a Scottish woman by the name of Sophia Jex-Blake asked for permission to study medicine at Edinburgh University. She had previously asked to study at Harvard but she had turned down due to gender. Some of the faculty wanted to limit her to the study of gynaecology or obstetrics. Prof Robert Christison worried that the supposed lesser intellect of women would ‘lower professional standards’. However, the University Senate and the Professors voted in favour of her admittance but the Senior Assistant Physician at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary and a petition with over 200 signatures asked that the university reconsider. They decided to deny Sophia’s request to be admitted, claiming they could not justify changing regulations and making the necessary preparations for just ‘one lady’.
Sophia decided to place advertisements in various Scottish newspapers, including the prominent Scotsman, whose editor was a friend of hers. She requested that other women with a keen interest in studying medicine at Edinburgh contact her. She intended to reapply, with the backing of various other academically minded women. It worked, and in 1869 the University received applications for 5 women to study medicine. This time the University wholly approved the applications, by which time 2 more women had joined the ranks, totalling the infamous 7. Sophia, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evens, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne moved into 15 Buccleuch Place together, where they studied and prepared for the admittance exams. All candidates were to take a two-part exam, which featured Latin, English and Math, as well as two elective subjects from a pre-approved list. 152 applicants took the 1869 exam. In the league tables, 4 of the women achieved places in the top 7 spaces.
In time for their admittance in 1970 new regulations were added, which clarified that female medical students were to be treated the same as their male counterparts, with the exceptions that they would pay higher tuition, due to the small size of their classes, (a result of their exclusion from the male classes). The professors were not required to teach the women and as such they were forced to organise their own lectures.
In the Chemistry and Physiology exams in 1870, 4 of the women passed with honours. Edith Pechey had scored excellently and became primarily eligible for the Hope Scholarship. However, their Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown was becoming increasingly concerned about the increasing bitterness among the staff and male students towards the women. Thus, perhaps as a protective measure or perhaps not, he gave the scholarship to male students who had achieved lesser scores.
In 1870, it was debated as to whether the women should be allowed to merge with the mainstream male classes, which would effectively lessen their tuition. Professor Robert Christison questioned why women should wish to become doctors at all, arguing they would do better to become midwives, and wondered aloud if female patients would even be comfortable seeing a female doctor. This gained national attention and the newspapers seem to have sided with the women. Meanwhile, the women were being verbally attacked, laughed at, jostled and having their property damaged by the male students, who were emboldened by Christison’s words.
On November 18th, 1870, the women were due to take an anatomy exam. Upon arriving their entrance was blocked by a crowd of a couple hundred students who threw mud at them. When they were finally able to reach Sturgeon Hall the gates were closed and locked. Eventually the gates were opened by another student, and the women went in, took their exam and left via the main entrance. Whatever the desired effect was of the now infamous ‘Sturgeon Hall Riots’ it failed. The women had evidently managed to take their exam. If the purpose had been to embarrass or discredit them it failed as the women gained further attention and sympathy. Three students were fined for breach of the peace, or in other words disorderly conduct. By this time other women had been joining the class and a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women had been formed. They had over 300 members including Charles Darwin.
In 1873 the Court of Session ruled that not only should the women have never been admitted, but that the University was within it’s rights to deny them degrees. Thus they were banned from graduating.
Sophia did her MD in Switzerland, before sitting her exams in Ireland and becoming a doctor in the UK. She was complicit in opening the London School of Medicine for Women which was established in 1874. Six women who had been apart of the Edinburgh Seven studied at the school, and 5 of them were given an MD in the 1870s. In 1876 the Enabling Bill allowed medical examiners to let women into their exams. This gave women the opportunity to sit their final exams. Sophia Jex-Blake then not only returned in 1878 as Edinburgh’s first female Dr but also created a clinic for the poor, and the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.
Edith also did an MD in Switzerland, then Ireland. She practised in Leeds before moving to Bombay and working at a women and children’s hospital.
Isabel Thorne was unable to complete her MD. She worked as honorary secretary in the London School of Medicine for Women from 1877 -1906.
Emily Bovrell got her MD in 1877 in Paris before taking the exams in Ireland. She worked at the New Hospital for Women from 1878-1881.
Helen Evans became a member of the executive committee for Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women upon her husbands death in 1876.
Matilda Chaplin married and moved to Tokyo where she established a midwifery school before studying at the London School of Medicine for Women, getting an MD from Paris and sitting her final exams in Ireland. She opened her own practise.
Mary Anderson studied at the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW), took her final exams in Ireland before working in the New Hospital for Women in London.
The Edinburgh Seven paved the way for women in medicine. They were recognised and awarded a MBChB from Edinburgh University in 2019.
Plaque mounted in memory of the Edinburgh Seven. Photo taken from Wikipedia
Knox, William (2006). The Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society, 1800–1980. Edinburgh University Press.
"Edinburgh Seven Doctors to Graduate after 150 years", BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-47814747
"Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven", University of Edinburgh, https://www.ed.ac.uk/medicine-vet-medicine/about/history/women/sophia-jex-blake-and-the-edinburgh-seven