Sophia Jex-Blake

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Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake
Sophia Jex-Blake Aged 25.jpg
Portrait by Samuel Laurence 1865
Born(1840-01-21)21 January 1840
Hastings, Sussex, England
Died7 January 1912(1912-01-07) (aged 71)
Mark Cross, Rotherfield, Sussex, England
Medical career
Profession Physician and teacher

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (21 January 1840 7 January 1912) was an English physician, teacher and feminist. [1] She led the campaign to secure women access to a University education when she and six other women, collectively known as the Edinburgh Seven, began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. She was the first practising female doctor in Scotland, and one of the first in the wider United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; a leading campaigner for medical education for women and was involved in founding two medical schools for women, in London and Edinburgh at a time when no other medical schools were training women.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

Physician professional who practices medicine

A physician, medical practitioner, medical doctor, or simply doctor, is a professional who practises medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining, or restoring health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. Physicians may focus their practice on certain disease categories, types of patients, and methods of treatment—known as specialities—or they may assume responsibility for the provision of continuing and comprehensive medical care to individuals, families, and communities—known as general practice. Medical practice properly requires both a detailed knowledge of the academic disciplines, such as anatomy and physiology, underlying diseases and their treatment—the science of medicine—and also a decent competence in its applied practice—the art or craft of medicine.

Teacher person who helps others to acquire knowledge, competences or values

A teacher is a person who helps others to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue.


Early life

A plaque commemorating the birthplace of Sophia Jex-Blake. Sophia Jex Blake (3573744951).jpg
A plaque commemorating the birthplace of Sophia Jex-Blake.

Sophia Jex-Blake was born at 3 Croft Place Hastings, England on 21 January 1840, daughter of retired lawyer Thomas Jex-Blake, a proctor of Doctors' Commons, and Mary Jex-Blake née Cubitt. [2] Her brother was Thomas Jex-Blake, future Dean of Wells Cathedral. Until the age of eight she was home-educated. [3] She attended various private schools in southern England and in 1858 enrolled at Queen's College, London, despite her parents' objections. In 1859, while still a student, she was offered a post as mathematics tutor at the college where she stayed until 1861, living for some of that time with Octavia Hill's family. She worked without pay: her family did not expect their daughter to earn a living, and indeed her father refused her permission to accept a salary. [4] [5]

Hastings Town and Borough in United Kingdom

Hastings is a town and borough in East Sussex on the south coast of England, 24 mi (39 km) east of the county town of Lewes and 53 mi (85 km) south east of London. It has an estimated population of 90,254.

Doctors Commons Society of lawyers practising civil law in London c. 1511–1865

Doctors' Commons, also called the College of Civilians, was a society of lawyers practising civil law in London. Like the Inns of Court of the common lawyers, the society had buildings with rooms where its members lived and worked, and a large library. Court proceedings of the civil law courts were held in Doctors' Commons. The society used St Benet's, Paul's Wharf as its church.

Thomas Jex-Blake clergyman

Thomas William Jex-Blake was an Anglican priest and educationalist.

Travels to the United States

The following month Sophia Jex-Blake travelled to the United States to learn more about women's education. She visited various schools, was strongly influenced by developments in co-education in the US and later published A Visit to Some American Schools and Colleges. At the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston she met one of the country's pioneer female physicians, Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, who became an important and lifelong friend, and she worked there for a time as an assistant. This was a turning point for Jex-Blake as she realised, during this visit, that to become a doctor was her life's vocation. [6]

Physician assistant profession

A physician assistant (PA) is a health care practitioner who practices medicine in collaboration with or under the (indirect) supervision of a physician, depending on state laws. Physicians do not need to be on-site with PAs and collaboration or supervision often occurs via electronic means when consults are necessary. Their scope of practice varies by jurisdiction and healthcare setting.

In 1867, along with Susan Dimock, a trainee from the New England Hospital, she wrote directly to the President and Fellows of Harvard University requesting admission to the University's Medical School. They received their reply a month later, in a letter which stated: "There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university". The following year, she hoped to attend a new medical college being established by Elizabeth Blackwell in New York, but in the same year her father died so she returned to England to be with her mother. [2]

Susan Dimock American physician

Susan Dimock M.D. was a pioneer in American medicine who received her qualification as a doctor from the University of Zurich in 1871 and was subsequently appointed resident physician of the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1872. The hospital, now known as the Dimock Community Health Center, was renamed in her honor after her tragic drowning in 1875. Dimock was traveling to Europe for pleasure and profession when she died in the shipwreck of the SS Schiller off the coast of the Scilly Isles. She is also remembered for becoming the first woman member of the North Carolina Medical Society.

Harvard University Private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

'A fair field and no favour'

In 1869, Jex-Blake's essay Medicine as a profession for women appeared in a book edited by Josephine Butler: Women's Work and Women's Culture. In this she argued that natural instinct leads women to concern themselves with the care of the sick. However, with education of girls being restricted to domestic crafts, women generally could not qualify to compete with men as medical practitioners. However, she argued that there was no objective proof of women's intellectual inferiority to men. She said that the matter could easily be tested by granting women 'a fair field and no favour' - teaching them as men were taught and subjecting them to exactly the same examinations.

Josephine Butler Victorian feminist and social reformer

Josephine Elizabeth Butler was an English feminist and social reformer in the Victorian era. She campaigned for women's suffrage, the right of women to better education, the end of coverture in British law, the abolition of child prostitution, and an end to human trafficking of young women and children into European prostitution.

The campaign to secure a university education for women begins

Sophia Jex-Blake was determined to seek medical training in the UK and due to Scotland's already enlightened attitudes towards education, felt that if any university would allow women to study it would be a Scottish one.

She applied to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in March 1869 and although the Medical Faculty and the Senatus Academus voted in favour of allowing her to study medicine, the University Court rejected her application on the grounds that the University could not make the necessary arrangements 'in the interest of one lady'.

University of Edinburgh public research university in Edinburgh, Scotland

The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582, is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of Scotland's ancient universities. The university has five main campuses in the city of Edinburgh, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university. The university played an important role in leading Edinburgh to its reputation as a chief intellectual centre during the Age of Enlightenment, and helped give the city the nickname of the Athens of the North.

Jex-Blake's application for matriculation, submitted to the University of Edinburgh and held in their archives. Matriculation Record, Sophia Jex-Blake (24402949229).jpg
Jex-Blake's application for matriculation, submitted to the University of Edinburgh and held in their archives.

She then advertised in The Scotsman and other national newspapers for more women to join her. A second application was submitted in the summer of 1869 on behalf of the group of five women initially (with two more joined later in the year to make the Edinburgh Seven - the group is Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Sophia Jex-Blake, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne). It requested matriculation and all that that implied - the right to attend all the classes and examinations required for a degree in medicine. This second application was approved by the University Court and the University of Edinburgh became the first British university to admit women.

Sophia Jex-Blake wrote in one of her letters to her great friend Lucy Sewall:

"It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn't it?"

See the Edinburgh Seven page for further details about the Edinburgh Campaign

Hostility grows and the Surgeons' Hall riot

As the women began to demonstrate that they could compete on equal terms with the male students, hostility towards them began to grow. They received obscene letters, were followed home, had fireworks attached to their front door, mud thrown at them. This culminated in the Surgeons' Hall riot on 18 November 1870 when the women arrived to sit an anatomy exam at Surgeons's Hall and an angry mob of over two hundred were gathered outside throwing mud, rubbish and insults at the women. [2]

The events made national headlines and won the women many new supporters. However, influential members of the Medical faculty eventually persuaded the University to refuse graduation to the women by appealing decisions to higher courts. The courts eventually ruled that the women who had been awarded degrees should never have been allowed to enter the course. [2] Their degrees were withdrawn and the campaign in Edinburgh failed in 1873.

Many of the women went to European universities that were already allowing women to graduate and completed their studies there.

'The time for a reform has come'

Women were eventually admitted onto degree programmes at other British Universities in 1877. James Stansfeld, who had been closely associated with the London campaign (following the failure of the Edinburgh campaign) wrote, in his brief history of the events:

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake has made the greatest of all contributions to the end attained. I do not say that she has been the ultimate cause of success. The ultimate cause has been simply this, that the time was at hand. It is one of the lessons of the history of progress that when the time for reform has come you cannot resist it, though if you make the attempt, what you may do is to widen its character or precipitate its advent. Opponents, when the time has come, are not merely dragged at the chariot wheels of progress - they help to turn them. The strongest forces, whichever way it seems to work, does most to aid. The forces of greatest concentration here have been, in my view, on the one hand the Edinburgh University led by Sir Robert Christison, on the other the women claimants led by Dr Sophia Jex-Blake. [7]

Eventual qualification as a doctor

In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women but also continued campaigning and studying. The Medical Act (39 and 40 Vict, Ch. 41) soon followed, which was an act to repeal the previous statute while also permitting medical authorities to license all qualified applicants whatever their gender. The first organisation to take advantage of this new legislation was the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, but before Jex-Blake applied to them, she passed the medical exams at the University of Berne where she was awarded an MD in January 1877. Four months later she had further success in Dublin and qualified as Licentiate of the King's and Queen's College of Physicians of Ireland (LKQCPI) meaning she could at last be registered with the General Medical Council, the third registered woman doctor in the country. [8] [9] [10]

Medical career

Bruntsfield Hospital, now converted to private flats, 2010 Former Bruntsfield Hospital, Whitehouse Loan, Edinburgh.jpg
Bruntsfield Hospital, now converted to private flats, 2010

Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh where she leased a house at 4 Manor Place and in June 1878, put up her brass plate – Edinburgh had its first woman doctor. Three months later she opened an outpatient clinic at 73 Grove Street, Fountainbridge, where poor women could receive medical attention for a fee of a few pence. After her mother's death in 1881, Sophia Jex-Blake had a period of depressed reclusiveness, but in 1886 set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. [11] The Dispensary expanded by 1885 was moved to larger premises at 6 Grove Street where a small five-bed ward was added. The little outpatient clinic thus became the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women. This was Scotland's first hospital for women staffed entirely by women.

Two years later she established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. Effectively a small extramural class, it was largely enabled by a small handful of pro-female male physicians linked to the University of Edinburgh giving extramural classes open to men and women (which the university could not prevent). The first students included Elsie Inglis, Grace Ross Cadell and her sister Georgina, but Jex-Blake's skill as a teacher did not match her role as a doctor. An acrimonious split emerged with her students culminating in an infamous court case in 1889, where Jex-Blake was successfully sued for damages. Thereafter the Cadell sisters pursued their studies with the more genial, though far younger, Elsie Inglis who had set up a rival school, the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women. Jex-Blake's school came to an effective end in 1892 when the University of Edinburgh began taking female students. The Elsie Inglis College continued until 1916, when it merged with the Royal Colleges School of Medicine at Surgeons' Hall. [12]

Jex-Blake lived and conducted her practice for 16 years in the house known as Bruntsfield Lodge on Whitehouse Loan. When she retired in 1889 the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children moved to this site, and became known as Bruntsfield Hospital, where it continued to function on the site until 1989. [13]

Personal life

Jex-Blake's romantic partner was Dr Margaret Todd. On Jex-Blake's retirement in 1899 they moved to Windydene, Mark Cross, Rotherfield, where Dr Todd wrote The Way of Escape in 1902 and Growth in 1906.

Her home became a meeting place for former students and colleagues, and she welcomed writers and acquaintances from the world over. [14]

Death and commemoration

Historic Scotland commemorative plaque to the Edinburgh Seven and the Surgeons' Hall riot Edinburgh Seven Plaque.jpg
Historic Scotland commemorative plaque to the Edinburgh Seven and the Surgeons' Hall riot

Jex-Blake died at Windydene on 7 January 1912 and is buried at Rotherfield. Todd subsequently wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake. [15]

The University of Edinburgh commemorates Sophia Jex-Blake with a plaque (by Pilkington Jackson) near the entrance to its medical school, honouring her as "Physician, pioneer of medical education for women in Britain, alumna of the University".

In 2015, an Historic Scotland plaque was unveiled to commemorate the Surgeons' Hall Riot of 18 November 1870.

The Edinburgh Seven were awarded the posthumous honorary MBChB at the University of Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall on Saturday, July 6 2019. The degrees were collected on their behalf by a group of current students at Edinburgh Medical School. Medical student Simran Piya collected an honorary degree on behalf of Sophia Jex-Blake. The graduation was the first of a series of university events planned by the University of Edinburgh to commemorate the achievements and significance of the Edinburgh Seven. [16]


Selected writings

See also

Further reading

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  1. "Jex-Blake, Sophia". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. pp. 938–939.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Shirley Roberts, ‘Blake, Sophia Louisa Jex- (1840–1912)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 11 Nov 2008
  3. Knox, William (2006). Lives of Scottish women. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 71. ISBN   9780748617883.
  4. Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (Macmillan, 1918)
  5. According to Virginia Woolf, this was a "typical instance of the great Victorian fight ... of the daughters against the fathers" where a father would hope to keep a daughter in his power by saying earning a living was "beneath her". See chapter 3 of Three Guineas Archived 30 August 2006 at the Wayback Machine (1938)
  6. S. Roberts, Dictionary of National Biography
  7. Roberts, Shirley (1993). Sophia Jex-Blake : a woman pioneer in nineteenth-century medical reform (1. publ. ed.). London u.a.: Routledge. ISBN   978-0-415-08753-7.
  8. British Medical Journal. British Medical Association. 1908. pp. 1079–.
  9. John A. Wagner Ph.D. (25 February 2014). Voices of Victorian England: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life. ABC-CLIO. pp. 211–. ISBN   978-0-313-38689-3.
  10. Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons (1892). Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command. H.M. Stationery Office. pp. 40–.
  11. Lutzker, Edythe (1969). Women Gain a Place in Medicine. New York: McGraw Hill. p. 149.
  12. Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women: From the Earliest Times to 2004, by Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes and Sian Reynolds
  13. Roberts, Shirley (1993). Sophia Jex-Blake : a woman pioneer in nineteenth-century medical reform (1. publ. ed.). London u.a.: Routledge. ISBN   978-0-415-08753-7.
  14. Lutzker, Edythe (1969). Women Gain a Place in Medicine. New York: McGraw Hill. p. 149.
  15. Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (Macmillan, 1918)
  16. Drysdale, Neil. "UK's first female students posthumously awarded their medical degrees in Edinburgh". Press and Journal. Retrieved 6 July 2019.

"Miscellany#Prof. Huxley on Female Education"  . Popular Science Monthly . Vol. 5. October 1874. ISSN   0161-7370 via Wikisource.