At the British Library‘s exhibition Unfinished Business, the Edinburgh Seven featured as examples of women campaigning for the right to higher education. Whilst girls were welcome in schools during the 19th-century, universities did not permit women to enrol. The seven women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 against the ruling of the Court of Session, but they were not allowed to graduate.
Taking their name from the Greek mythological story the Seven Against Thebes, the Edinburgh Seven or Septem contra Edinam involved many women over their four-year campaign. The seven leaders were: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Jex-Blake instigated the campaign after applying to study medicine in March 1869. Whilst the Medical Faculty was in favour of welcoming Jex-Blake, the University Court rejected the application stating they could not change the rules “in the interest of one lady”.
Determined to study at the university, Jex-Blake published letters in national newspapers asking women to join her. Two women, Thorne and Pechey, quickly joined her cause and by the summer, the number of women totalled five. Jex-Blake resubmitted her application along with the other women in the hopes that this time the university would grant her entry. While waiting for a response, two more women joined the cause, taking the total to seven. The University Court accepted the application so long as the women could pass the matriculation exam.
The matriculation exam involved English, Latin, mathematics and two subjects of the candidate’s choice: Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. On 19th October 1869, 152 students took the exam, Jex-Blake and her friends being the only women. All of them passed with four women earning a place in the top seven. On 2nd November 1869, the University of Edinburgh opened its doors to women for the first time.
“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”Sophia Jex-Blake
Who were the Edinburgh Seven?
Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the leader of the Edinburgh Seven grew up in Hastings where she received an education at home until the age of eight. After this, she attended many private schools including Queen’s College, London, which she started attending in 1858 without her parents’ permission. The following year, the college offered Jex-Blake a post as a mathematics tutor, which she accepted although did without pay.
In 1861, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States, where she met Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, an American physician who inspired Jex-Blake to think about becoming a doctor. After working for some time as Sewall’s assistant, Jex-Blake wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University asking to attend the University’s Medical School. After waiting a month, she received a reply saying, “There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.
Jex-Blake’s father passed away shortly after this rejection, so she returned to England to support her mother. Yet, she still aspired to attend university and set her sights on Scotland, a country that already had shifting attitudes towards education.
Isabel Jane Thorne (1834-1910), nee Pryer, also attended Queen’s College, London. In 1856, Isabel married Joseph Thorne (1823-85), a tea merchant in China, and they spent the first years of their married life in Shanghai. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy, which inspired Thorne to help other women and children in China. Thorn believed women needed female doctors, so when she returned to England in 1868, she enrolled on a midwifery course at the Ladies’ Medical College in Fitzroy Square, London.
Disappointed with the inadequate teaching at the Ladies’ Medical College, Thorne eagerly responded to Jex-Blake’s letter. She won first prize in an anatomy examination but gave up her ambition to become a doctor to help other women access medical education. Her daughter May, who supported her mother’s dreams, later became a surgeon.
(Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) from Essex already had connections with the University of Edinburgh through her father William, a Baptist minister who earned his MA in theology in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Pechey could not use this to her advantage because she was a woman. Pechey worked as a governess until she saw and responded to Jex-Blake’s advertisement. Although concerned she did not have enough knowledge of the subjects needed to pass the matriculation exam, Pechey achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam after only one year of study.
Matilda Chaplin (1846-83) moved to Kensington from France shortly after her birth. Her early education focused on art, but in 1867 she decided to study medicine instead. Two years at the Ladies’ Medical College only got her so far, until her gender blocked her ambitions to become a doctor. Chaplin jumped at the chance to join Jex-Blake’s campaign to study at the University of Edinburgh.
Helen de Lacey Evans (1833-1903), born Helen Carter, was an Irish woman who spent some time in India where she married cavalry officer Henry John Delacy Evans of the Bengal Horse Artillery Regiment in 1845. Their marriage was short and bittersweet, resulting in the death of their infant daughter Helen shortly followed by Henry’s death. After returning to Britain, Evans responded to Jex-Blake and joined the Edinburgh Seven.
Mary Adamson Anderson (1837-1910) from Boyndie, Scotland was the daughter of Reverend Alexander Govie Anderson and sister-in-law of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). Little information exists about Anderson until she joined the Edinburgh Seven.
Emily Bovell (1841-85), like Jex-Blake, attended Queen’s College, London and stayed on to teach Mathematics. She too responded to Jex-Blake’s letter, eager to continue her education.
Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh was only the first hurdle. In hindsight, it was relatively easy in comparison to what they later faced. The Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 introduced a new section called the Regulations for the Education of Women in Medicine in the University. This stated men and women were to receive equal tuition and examinations. Despite this, women received their lessons separately from men and had to pay higher fees.
In March 1870, all seven women passed their first exams in physiology and chemistry, four of whom received honours in both subjects. Edith Pechey won first place amongst all the candidates, which entitled her to the Hope Scholarship. This award, initiated by Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844) forty years previously, was usually given to the top four students. The present Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown, on the other hand, thought giving the scholarship to women would undermine the male students.
Denying women the Hope Scholarship sparked further hostilities in the university. Many professors continued to argue that women should not be allowed to study with the men and expressed concerns that they may have ulterior motives for seeking medical careers. Pechey wrote to the papers to express her anger at being called “the foulest epithets”, most notably “whore”. Newspapers sympathetic to the women questioned why the professors did not have the same concerns about their male students, yet the professors maintained the women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!”
The male students, perhaps encouraged by their professors’ views, went out of their way to make the women’s lives difficult. As well as name-calling, the women received threatening letters and faced attacks in the streets. Vandals damaged their property and, on one occasion, Jex-Blake had a lit Catherine Wheel attached to her door.
Despite the ongoing antagonism, the women persevered with their education. On 18th November 1870, their anatomy exam was due to take place at Surgeons’ Hall, but on their arrival, they faced a hostile crowd. After fighting their way through the masses while being pelted with mud and rubbish, they found the entrance to the hall locked. After enduring the hostilities, now known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riots, for several minutes, a sympathetic male student unlocked the doors.
After the riots, many of the male students changed their attitudes towards the women. Shocked by the abuse they witnessed, some of the men volunteered to act as bodyguards. They walked the women to and from their exams and their classes. The police fined three of the riot instigators £1 for “breach of the peace”, but Jex-Blake believed it was a member of staff who encouraged their behaviour.
Inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, other women joined the university and others established a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Over 300 people joined the committee, both women and men, including the well-known naturalist Charles Darwin. Despite this support and the excellent exam results the women received, the university refused to let them graduate. Not only did the university deny the women degrees, but they also ruled that women should no longer be allowed to attend.
Despite complaints, the university refused to back down, yet the Edinburgh Seven were not ready to give up on their dreams. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with two other pioneering women: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
Bristol-born Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child and experienced similar issues as the Edinburgh Seven when applying to American universities. She eventually found a place at Geneva Medical College in New York where, despite harsh treatment, she received a degree in 1849, the first American woman to do so.
Garrett Anderson, inspired by Blackwell, sought a medical education in Britain but received rejections from every establishment. After working for some time as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, she travelled to France, where she successfully earned a medical degree. Returning to England, Garrett Anderson eagerly agreed to help Jex-Blake establish the School of Medicine for Women and served as Dean from 1883 until 1903.
Shortly after the establishment of the school, Conservative MP Robert Gurney (1804-78) proposed changes to the Medical Act, which would allow both genders to attend and graduate from medical schools. Despite Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) objections to women working, she passed the new Medical Act in 1876. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was the first establishment to implement these changes, but this was too late for Jex-Blake who by then was a student at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She successfully graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1877.
On returning to Scotland, Jex-Blake set up a clinic where she practised as Edinburgh’s first female doctor. In 1878, Jex-Blake established an outpatient clinic for poor women who could not afford the prices of most doctors. By 1885, it had expanded to include a small ward under the name the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed by women.
In 1886, Jex-Blake set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but it did not prove as successful as the London school. Despite having the support of a handful of physicians, the school struggled to find funding. Unlike the London school, which had several teachers, Jex-Blake attempted to teach her students alone. Evidence suggests she was not as good at teaching as she was at being a doctor and the school closed in 1892. By this time, the University of Edinburgh allowed female applicants and Jex-Blake’s students continued their education at the university.
Jex-Blake continued to work as a doctor until 1899, when she retired to Windydene in Mark Cross, Rotherfield. Here she resided with Dr Margaret Todd (1859-1918), a doctor who coined the word “isotope” in 1913. Many assume Jex-Blake and Todd had a romantic relationship and, after Jex-Blake’s death in 1912 Todd wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake.
What happened to the other six women?
When the University of Edinburgh denied the women their degrees, Isabel Thorne gave up her ambition to become a doctor. Instead, she joined the London School of Medicine for Women as a teacher. When Jex-Blake travelled to Berne to pursue her medical education, Thorne took over as Honorary Secretary, which she held until 1908. Thorne committed herself to teaching and helping the school run smoothly, without which it would have floundered.
Thorne kept an account of her years at the school, which she published as Sketch of the Foundation and Development of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1905. Her daughter May followed in her footsteps, graduating from the school in 1895 and taking over as Honorary Secretary in 1908. Thorne passed away at home in October 1910, age 76.
Edith Pechey refused to give up on her ambition to become a doctor. After leaving Edinburgh, Pechey contacted the College of Physicians in Ireland who allowed her to take exams to earn a midwifery license. This led to a job at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women, where she worked until 1877 when she, like Jex-Blake, travelled to Berne to earn her degree. In May 1877, Pechey became a fully licensed doctor.
For six years, Pechey worked as a doctor in Leeds, where she also advocated for women’s health education. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened, Jex-Blake invited Pechey to give the inaugural address. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested Pechey may be interested in a new “medical women for India” fund and, in 1883, Pechey arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) to work at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children as Senior Medical Officer (SMO).
While in India, Pechey encouraged women to train as nurses and demanded they received equal pay. She gave lectures to student nurses and campaigned for social reform so that women could enter other male-oriented fields. Her reputation grew, and she received invites from several societies asking her to be their first female member. By 1888, she was on the Bombay Natural History Society committee.
Pechey met the founding secretary of the society, Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1850-1936) and learnt he also had a hand in developing the “medical women for India” fund. With Phipson, who she married in March 1889, Pechey established the Pechey Phipson Sanitarium for Women and Children in Nasik, India. Unfortunately, five years later Pechey-Phipson suffered ill health, including diabetes, and resigned from hospital work. She continued to practice privately and proved invaluable during the bubonic plague and cholera outbreak.
Pechey-Phipson and her husband returned to England in 1905 and she quickly involved herself with the suffrage movement. She took part in the famous Mud March but soon after became critically ill. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Pechey-Phipson sought treatment. She underwent an operation led by the surgeon May Thorne, the daughter of Isabel Thorne, but passed away while in a diabetic coma on 14th April 1908. Her husband set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women in her memory.
When the University of Edinburgh closed to women, Matilda Chaplin travelled to France to complete her education at the University of Paris. After gaining a Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres, Chaplin married her cousin William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), a physicist and electrical engineer who studied under Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Back in the United Kingdom, Mrs Ayrton qualified as a midwife then moved to Japan with her husband.
While her husband taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Ayrton established a school for Japanese midwives. In 1875, she gave birth to her daughter Edith (1875-1945) who would go on to play a role in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Unfortunately, Ayrton developed tuberculosis, which prompted her return to Europe in 1877. After recovering, she moved to Paris to take the Doctor of Medicine exams, which she passed in 1879.
Ayrton continued to study, taking exams at the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, after which she moved to London to study diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. A recurrence of tuberculosis prompted her to seek warmer climates during the winter months. When not working in hospitals, Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman newspaper and wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan, which she illustrated. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton passed away in London on 19th July 1883, age 37.
Helen de Lacey Evans decided not to pursue her medical career after leaving the University of Edinburgh, but she did remain in touch with Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1871, Evans remarried to Alexander Russel (1814-76), the editor of The Scotsman. Evans and Russel had three children, including Helen Archdale (1876-1949) who, inspired by her mother, went on to organise the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Although she did not become a doctor, Evans advocated female doctors and emphasised the importance of education for girls. Sadly, her husband died suddenly of angina pectoris in 1876, making her a widow for the second time. With three young children to bring up, Evans had limited time to spend on promoting women’s health education, yet she remained passionate for the cause. Later, in 1900, Evans became the vice-president of the committee of the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Unfortunately, she did not hold this position for long, passing away on 4th October 1903 after a surgical procedure.
Little is known about Mary Anderson‘s life after she left the University of Edinburgh. Records show she earned a medical doctorate from the Faculté de médecine de Paris in 1879. She married a man named Claud Marshall and worked as a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London. She died in 1910.
Emily Bovell also moved to Paris to continue her education, qualifying as a doctor in 1877. That year, she met the future personal physician for Queen Victoria, William Allen Sturge (1850-1919), who she married later that year in London. Together, they set up a practice in Wimpole Street, and Bovell returned to Queen’s College to lecture on physiology and hygiene. She also ran classes for female paramedics.
Her husband supported Bovell’s work and also campaigned for women’s medical education. Unfortunately, in 1881, Bovell began complaining of breathing problems, which made it difficult to focus on her medical career. The couple moved to Nice in the hopes the climate would help Bovell’s condition. Rallying a little, Bovell set up a practice in Nice as their first female doctor. Sadly, her lung problems worsened in 1884, and she passed away the following April. In her honour, her husband established the Bovell-Sturge laboratory at Queen’s College.
Despite the University of Edinburgh refusing to allow the women to graduate, each member of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve things despite their gender. Due to their determination, universities opened up for women, and today it is as common to see a female doctor as it is a male. Sadly, no one apologised to the women for the treatment they received during their education but, in 2015, Edinburgh University unveiled a plaque in their honour as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme. In 2019, Edinburgh Medical School went one step further, posthumously awarding the Edinburgh Seven with an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).
Usually, the Suffragists and Suffragettes receive the credit for changing lives for women, but this is not entirely true. The Edinburgh Seven were instrumental in changing the medical world for women and should be recognised accordingly. The Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library only named Sophia Jex-Blake in a brief paragraph, but all seven women deserve far more attention.
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