ALAN WEBER: Sophia Jex-Blake was born in Sussex, England in 1840. Her father was a lawyer. She was a high-spirited and imaginative child, and invented a mythical realm of Sacramena in her childhood writings.
Her first report card at age 8 mentioned "a little native wildness." And some of her schoolmates remarked on her excessive cleverness and her tactlessness in demonstrating it. Her hot temper would later become not only her most important asset as she attempted to enter the medical profession by force of will, but also her greatest liability, as she alienated many potential allies by her recklessness. Neither Elizabeth Garrett Anderson nor Elizabeth Blackwell ever developed a strong personal relationship with her.
Jex-Blake enrolled at Queens College for Governesses in 1858 and wrote, "I am inclined to say I am as happy as a queen. Work and independence-- what can be more charming?" In 1862, Jex-Blake traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to take classes at the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association. But like a great deal of Victorian education for girls and women, the course of study was second-rate and disappointing. She instead turned to tutoring German and mathematics.
Jex-Blake then taught English at the Mannheim Institute. With the simple lodgings, plain food, and rigorous lessons, both students and teachers found the curriculum trying and tiring. She wrote, "I seem so oppressed with a sense of the greatness, the weight of my work, and of my own miserable insufficiency for it. I was so weak, and stupid, and unfit."
In 1869, Jex-Blake wrote to the Edinburgh University faculty, requesting to attend the medical lectures there. The faculty reaction was mixed, but a majority voted to admit her to the university, despite complaints from male students that a woman would disrupt the classroom and prevent the discussion of delicate medical topics. Most of the professors were neutral about her matriculation.
But Professor [? Laycock ?] at Edinburgh informed her he could not imagine any decent woman wishing to study medicine. As for any lady, that was out of the question. A Scottish court overruled the University Senate and denied her entrance to the university, however. Jex-Blake persevered, and in 1869, Edinburgh became the first university in the United Kingdom to admit women. Her biggest opponent at the university was Robert Cristison, who was opposed to the higher education of women, and he was the most powerful man on campus.
The women were to be educated in separate lecture halls and were to pay higher fees. Among the first women students was Edith Pechey. Pechey knew that the first women students would have to work extraordinarily hard and prove themselves to be competent and knowledgeable.
Pechey was joined by Mrs. Isabel Thorne, who lost her child while her husband was doing missionary work in China. She became convinced of the need for better pediatric and obstetric care in China, and hoped to return to that country as a doctor. These two women were joined by Matilda Chaplin and Mrs. Helen Evans.
The first women medical students at Edinburgh did extremely well in their studies, which provoked resentment from some of the male students. Edith Pechey received the highest marks in a chemistry course and should have been awarded a Hope Scholarship. But the chemistry professor Dr. [? Krum ?] Brown, fearing a popular outcry, awarded Hope scholarships to less qualified male students.
And there was other, more overt opposition to the women students. Jex-Blake wrote in 1870, "a certain proportion of the students with whom we worked became markedly offensive and insolent, and took every opportunity of practicing the petty annoyances that occur to thoroughly ill-bred lads, such as shutting doors in our faces, ostentatiously crowding into the seats we usually occupied, bursting into hoarse laughs and howls when we approached, as if a conspiracy had been formed to make our position as uncomfortable as might be."
On Friday, November 18, 1870, hostility towards the women students erupted into a violent confrontation known as the Surgeons Hall Riot. A crowd of students attempted to prevent the women from sitting for their final medical exams. As Sophia later wrote, "on the afternoon the afternoon of Friday, November 18, 1870, we women walked down together to Surgeons Hall As soon as we came in sight of the gates, we found a dense mob filling up the roadway in front of them, comprising some dozen of the lowest class of our students at Surgeons Hall, and many more of the same class from the university. A number of street rowdies, and some hundreds of gaping spectators, who took no particular part in the matter.
SPEAKER: Not a single policeman was visible, though the crowd was sufficient to stop all traffic for about an hour. We walked straight up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed into our faces by a number of young men, who stood within, smoking and passing about bottles of whiskey while they abused us in the foulest possible language, which I am thankful to say I have never heard equal before or since."
ALAN WEBER: "We waited quietly on the steps--
SPEAKER: To see if the rowdies were to have it all their own way. And in a few minutes, we saw another fellow student of ours, Mr. Sanderson, rush down from Surgeons Hall and wrench open the gate, in spite of the howls and efforts of our half-tipsy opponents. We were quick to seize the chance offered, and in a very few seconds, we had all passed through the gate and entered the anatomical classroom, where the usual examination was conducted in spite of the yells and howls resounding outside, and the forcible intrusion of a luckless sheep that was pushed in by the rioters. Let it remain, said Dr. Handyside, it has more sense than those who sent it here. At the close of the class, the lecturer offered to have us let out by a back door, but I glanced around the ranks of our fellow students and remarked that I thought there were enough gentleman here to prevent any harm to us."
ALAN WEBER: For the next few days, a bodyguard of sympathetic students escorted the women around campus. After the riot, public interest in the women students grew, and Jex-Blake turned her efforts towards getting the women admitted to the Royal Infirmary, where they could exercise and practice their skills. The petty annoyances from a small band of students did not cease. "The filthiest possible anonymous letters were sent to several of us by post, and the climax was reached when students took to waylaying us in some of the less-frequented streets through which we had to pass, and shouting indecencies after us, making use sometimes of anatomical terms which they knew we could not fail to understand, while the police were equally certain not to do so."
On the whole, however, Jex-Blake admitted that the majority of students were chivalrous and manly. In 1871, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, William Law, founded the Committee for Securing a Medical Education to the Women of Edinburgh to aid the women students. Influential supporters of this committee included Charles Darwin and Harriet Martineau.
The primary argument of the opponents, including Joseph Lister, to women's medical education was that mixed medical lecture would be disruptive, and that the university could not afford the facilities for the separate education of female students. Lister complained, "and in the case of the female house surgeons and house physicians, the fact of these young people residing under the same roof with the corresponding officers of the other sex, and being thrown into intimate association with them for consultation and aid in professional emergencies would, I fear, lead in the long run to great inconvenience and scandal."
Meanwhile, the women students at Edinburgh were proving themselves competent by winning academic prizes. But in many cases, the prizes were mailed to them, and the customary awards ceremonies were canceled. A setback for Jex-Blake came when the University Senate obtained a legal opinion which questioned the right of women to be legally considered students, and therefore unable to take degrees. Furthermore, women students studying for medical degrees were barred from attending lectures at Surgeons Hall, although midwives were still welcome.
Later, the dean of the medical faculty informed the women that the faculty would not give examinations to the women. Jex-Blake appealed to her solicitor, who advised her that the action was clearly illegal, and the university relented after receiving her lawyer's legal opinion. Nevertheless, Alexander Wood and Robert Christison attempted to block the granting of degrees to the women students.
Forced into a corner, Jex-Blake believed the only recourse was a lawsuit against the Edinburgh University Senate, although many of her supporters, such as Elizabeth Blackwell and her brother Thomas, counseled against it. In 1872, with the court case pending, she lectured in London at St. George's Hall. The Lord Ordinary, Lord Giffard, determined that the university's constitution did not anywhere exclude women.
Although this was a clear victory for Jex-Blake, she was now fully embroiled in the women's movement and had neglected her studies. The struggle took a large emotional toll as well. She wrote, "I think when once the fight is won, I shall creep away into some wood and lie and sleep for a year."
Unfortunately, an exhausted Jex-Blake failed her first professional examinations at Edinburgh. She and Edith Pechey sought the advice of Thomas Huxley at London University, but he agreed with the university examiners that her paper on natural history was not worthy of a passing grade. But members of the Scottish Parliament began speaking out in favor of the women students.
In 1873 came the disastrous news that the Edinburgh courts had overturned the Lord Ordinary's previous judgment allowing women the right to receive degrees. Similarly, the court ruled that the university was not allowed to teach women students, completely blocking their access to medical education at Edinburgh.
By 1874, the women students had exhausted their educational opportunities at Edinburgh with no hopes of graduating with a degree. When Jex-Blake applied to the other medical universities in London, she was refused entry. Jex-Blake and some of the Edinburgh women attempted to enter the Royal College of Surgeons by sitting for examinations for the license of midwifery. The entire board of examiners, however, resigned their positions, preventing the women from obtaining membership in the college.
In 1876, the Russell Gurney Enabling Bill allowed, but did not force, medical examining bodies to examine women. Although not required by the law to do so, the College of Physicians agreed to examine women. Jex-Blake, however, decided to travel to Switzerland to obtain more medical training, because she had fallen behind in her medical studies. In 1877, Jex-Blake obtained a Swiss medical degree, and her name was added to the British medical register, alongside Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. In 1887, she was instrumental in creating the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.
Only in 1896 did a woman finally obtain a medical degree from Edinburgh University. The first candidates were Jessie MacGregor and Mona Geddes. Jex-Blake's Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women was now largely superfluous, and it closed in 1898. She died in 1912 in Sussex.
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This is a story of perseverance and courage, but also about disappointment and social prejudice as women fought to establish themselves as respected health care practitioners in Europe and America.
This video is part 4 of 5 in the Storming the Citadel series.