Edinburgh has a strong history of medical pioneering, and among the pantheon of Scottish doctors and surgeons who helped to advance medical science is Sophia Jex-Blake, an English woman who was instrumental in furthering the role of women in medicine across the UK, beginning here in Edinburgh.
Born in 1840, Jex-Blake had undertaken some travels in America during her 20s, where she had spent time working alongside some of the earliest female physicians on that side of the Atlantic. On applying to study medicine at the esteemed Harvard University, she was informed that the school system there had no provision for teaching women in any of its departments, least of all medicine.
After returning to Britain she was determined to continue pursuing her interests in the medical field, and believed that Scotland, with a more enlightened attitude towards education than England at the time, might be receptive to her intentions to train as a doctor.
After applying to join Edinburgh University's medical school, she was informed that although the medical faculty had agreed in principle to allow her to study, the university's lawyers had blocked the application on the grounds that considerable adjustments would have to be made to the teaching. Such 'adjustments' included physical issues like separate bathroom and washing facilities for male and female students, for example, and - crucially - a curriculum that avoided mentioning any bodily matter (blood, reproduction, male anatomy...) which might cause distress to the female student.
Such adjustments were too great to be warranted for 'just one woman', and so Jex-Blake's application was turned down.
Stirred by this form of refusal, Jex-Blake advertised in the Scotsman newspaper for other women who were interested in joining the university, and in 1869 Jex-Blake and six other women - known afterwards as the 'Edinburgh Seven' - submitted applications to study medicine. This time her application, and that of her fellow women, was accepted, and that year Edinburgh became the first university in Britain to accept women as students.
This was not to say that the women were roundly accepted by everyone - in 1870 a mob of 200 men and women (including students and faculty members of the university itself) opposed the women's training by throwing mud, rocks and insults at the students as they arrived for an anatomy exam at Surgeons' Hall.
An appeal against the admission of women was successfully launched, and all of them later had to withdraw from their training in Edinburgh - many transferred to schools in Europe, where women were already permitted to study.
Undaunted, Jex-Blake qualified as a doctor in London in 1874, and returned to Edinburgh in 1878, opening up a medical practice on Manor Place in the New Town. In 1885 the dispensary expanded and moved to premises on the corner of Grove Street and Fountainbridge - the building still stands today, its ornate sandstone decoration making it stand out from its modern neighbours on either side. This building became the city's first pharmacy providing specific medical treatment for women, and particularly women from poorer backgrounds, who would not be able to afford the consultations of a private doctor. It was staffed entirely by women.
In 1887 Jex-Blake established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, a teaching institute which was instrumental in establishing another of the country's great medical pioneers, Elsie Inglis. Inglis and Jex-Blake were not great friends, and Inglis went on to establish a rival training school for women which was more successful, and for which Inglis is more celebrated today.
Both Jex-Blake and Inglis' medical schools closed in 1892, when Edinburgh University formally accepted female students once again. The hospital Jex-Blake established moved from Grove Street to Bruntsfield as it grew and expanded, and although it operated as a medical facility up until 1989, today the building has been converted into modern housing.
Sophia Jex-Blake died in 1912, and is buried in Sussex in England, where she had lived out the final years of her life with her partner, Margaret Todd.
Intriguingly, Jex-Blake is commemorated with a plaque at the University of Edinburgh's former medical school building on Lauriston Place, where she is described as an 'alumnus' of the university, even though she wasn't formally allowed to finish her studies there. In 2019, seven female medical students received symbolic honorary degrees at a University of Edinburgh Medical School graduation ceremony, to belatedly honour and recognise the original 'Edinburgh Seven'.
Today, women and medicine are intrinsically linked, and it is hard to imagine a medical service in the UK without the pioneering work and dedication of women like Sophia Jex-Blake and Elsie Inglis.
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