LGBTQ History month

LGBTQ History month

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Celebrating Sophia Jex-Blake: Making a Mark in Medicine

By the Exploristics EDI team

Once again Exploristics is delighted to be celebrating LGBTQ History Month which this year is marking the many contributions of the LGBTQ community to medicine. Here we highlight the work of Sophia Jex-Blake, a groundbreaking physician and pioneering feminist who fought for women’s rights to higher education.

No provision for the education of women

Born in England in 1840, Sophia Jex-Blake attended multiple private schools before studying at Queen’s College London in 1858, remaining there until 1861. In 1865 Sophia travelled to the United States where she met pioneering female physician Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Inspired by Lucy’s work, Sophia stayed as her assistant before deciding to embark on her own medical career. So, in 1867, Sophia and a fellow trainee from the New England Hospital, Susan Dimock, wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University to apply for admission to the medical school there. Their request was soundly rejected with the words “there is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university.”

A fair field

Returning to England following the death of her father, Sophia was frustrated by the lack of available opportunities for women to enter the medical profession. In 1869, she wrote the essay “Medicine as a profession for women” which was published in the book Women’s Work and Women’s Culture. Here she argued that there was no proof of women’s intellectual inferiority to men but that it was the restriction of girls’ education to domestic subjects which meant they were unable to qualify as physicians. She proposed that women’s suitability for the profession should be tested by offering women “a fair field and no favour” with women being educated and examined in the same way as their male counterparts.

Applying to Edinburgh

Still determined to become a physician herself, in 1869 Sophia applied to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh due to Scotland’s more progressive views on women’s education. Given her clinical experience, the medical faculty were in favour of granting her entry into the medical school. However, her application was rejected by the university court stating that the university could not accommodate its arrangements in the “interests of one lady.”

The Edinburgh Seven

Undeterred by this rejection, Sophia advertised in national newspapers for more women to join her in applying to study medicine at Edinburgh. She submitted a second application to the university in 1869 alongside six other women, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne, who became known as the Edinburgh Seven. They requested the right to attend all the classes and exams required to earn a medical degree. Their application was approved, and the University of Edinburgh became the first British university to admit women.

Braving the backlash

Unfortunately, an angry backlash developed in response to their admittance which culminated in the Surgeon’s Hall Riot in 1870. Here, a mob of around two hundred harried the women during an anatomy exam, pelting them with mud and rubbish. The ensuing coverage in the national newspapers won the women more support. However, faced with scandalous national headlines, influential faculty members persuaded the university to refuse their graduation and the women’s degrees were withdrawn. Despite this setback, many continued their studies and completed their medical degrees at European universities that did admit female students. Women were finally admitted onto degree courses at British universities in 1877, in good part due to pressure from Sophia and the Edinburgh Seven.

Breaking barriers and changing the law

While continuing to campaign for the rights of women to study at university and studying for her own medical degree, Sophia supported the establishment of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. Shortly after, new laws were put in place that allowed medical authorities to license all qualified applicants irrespective of gender. Sophia completed her medical exams at the University of Bern & King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland. On doing so she became the third registered female physician in the UK.

A clinic for women, staffed by women

On returning to Scotland in 1879, Sophia became the country’s first woman doctor and opened an outpatient clinic which offered cheap clinical care to poor women. Due to demand, in 1885 the clinic expanded to a larger site becoming the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women. It was Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed exclusively by women. In 1886, Sophia went on to establish the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women which provided extramural classes for men and women until the University of Edinburgh began to admit female students in 1892. Sophia continued to live and practice medicine at Bruntsfield Lodge until she retired in 1899.

Personal life and professional legacy

A trailblazer in so many ways, Sophia was believed to have been in a romantic relationship for many years with fellow physician Dr Margaret Todd with whom she lived. Margaret wrote an extensive biography of Sophia’s life following her death in January 1912.

Today, Sophia is commemorated at the University of Edinburgh with a plaque by the entrance to its medical school on which she is honoured as a ‘physician, pioneer of medical education for women in Britain and alumna of the University.’ The Edinburgh Seven were awarded the posthumous honorary MBChB degrees by the university in 2019. Their degrees were collected on their behalf by current students at the medical school. Although a little late in coming, the graduation marked a fitting tribute to the outstanding achievements of Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven as fearless pioneers in medicine and women’s education.

 

Read more:

A stellar STEM career

Celebrating Dr Sophie Wilson

Learning from the past to spark future change

 

Raising awareness of the positive impact of LGBTQ+ people in STEM and beyond is an important part of building a fairer society. It also helps highlight role models for people not yet ready to come out themselves. Learn more from NI-based organisation Cara-Friend at https://cara-friend.org.uk/.