Who are we? We are a group of 8 second year medical students at the University of Edinburgh undertaking a group project as part of our second semester. Our names are Loic Hayois, Craig Liddell, Alexandra Nash, Cari O’Rourke, Aya Riad, Madryn Riewer, Alba Saenz de Villaverde and Gemma Woodhead.
What are we doing in this project? We will be doing some research on the Edinburgh Seven, their supporters, opponents and what life was like as a medical student in the late 1800s. We will be sharing blog posts about their lives, the challenges they faced and their lasting impact as well as sharing posts written by other notable medical women. This project is completely student-selected and led with some supervision by out two tutors.
Why are we doing this project? We are all interested in the Edinburgh Seven and think other people are too! Our group is made up of 6 girls and 2 boys, 3/4 of us might not be here studying medicine if it wasn’t for these women! Also, we want more of our fellow students to recognise the Edinburgh Seven and their accomplishments.
Join us as we discover more about the first group of matriculated female undergraduate students in the UK : The Edinburgh Seven.
Amongst other challenges, one of the greatest obstacles for the Edinburgh Seven was organising medical lectures. It was specified in the Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 that women would be taught in different classes from men and would pay double the tuition fee to account for the small classes. Lecturers were permitted but not obligated to admit women to their classes. This meant that the women had to organise many lectures for themselves in subjects such as: chemistry, physiology, anatomy and botany.
One example of their university days is illustrated by an entry in Jex-Blake’s diary:
“Friday, Nov 4th. Just put down the day’s work for a specimen! Studying and canvassing at once.-
8.45 Started for Surgeon’s Hall. 9-10 Tutorial Class. Bones. 10-11 Surgery lecture. 11-1 Dissecting. 1-2 Anatomy lecture.
2.10 Reached home and found letter from Mr Blyth [manager] telling me to meet him at 2 pm!! Got there (after bolting beef tea and wine) at 2.45/ Talked at him for nearly an hour with good results, I believe. Got back home
3.40. Bolted some food and went. 4pm Demonstration exam. Didn’t know the Acromion but got 13/20 marks. Home to dinner. 7pm Started on round of calls. Home at 10 pm. Not tired, oh, dear no!”
Several of the professors at the university including Patrick Heron Watson who taught surgery and Peter Handyside who taught botany were sympathetic and offered to teach the women separately. However, opponents used the women’s separate classes as a way of undermining their efforts. Professors were pressured into refusing to aid in teaching the women. One important contributing factor was that lecturers received their fees directly from the students and not from the university; therefore lecturers who became unpopular amongst the student body were likely to suffer income loss. As a result, it became increasingly difficult to organise lessons and teachers that were more apprehensive, who were originally cooperative, pulled out in fear of public opinion. Thus, the women relied heavily on one another sharing their knowledge and studying together. Furthermore, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, the only hospital permitted to have clinical teaching, refused to admit women to clinical education. Jex-Blake appealed to various managers to overturn this but had little success.
It was not until 1872 that the Royal Infirmary allowed teachers in the extramural school to have separate clinical classes in one of the wards for three hours per week. Despite this, the women were still not allowed to attend post-mortems or observe in the operating theatres, putting them at a great learning disadvantage. This demonstrates the lengths these women had to go through in order to complete their medical training.
Author- Alexandra Nash
Croft E, A Painful Inch to Gain: Personal experiences of early women medical students in Britain.
Laurence M, Shadow of Swords: A biography of Elsie Englis
Rosner L, Medical Education in the Age of Improvement
Roberts S, Sophia Jex-Blake: A women pioneer in nineteenth-century medical reform
The pioneers of women’s higher education in the UK.
The Edinburgh Seven were the first undergraduate female medical students at any British university. Even though Miss Garrett unsuccessfully applied to study medicine in Edinburgh in 1862, it was only seven years later, in 1869, that Sophia Jex-Blake, the leader of the Edinburgh Seven, gained public attention for the rights of women to study at British universities.
1869- the year the Seven matriculated.
Sophia Jex-Blake applied to study medicine at The University of Edinburgh in March 1869. The Medical Faculty and the Senatus Academicus (The University’s supreme academic body) both voted in favour of allowing her to study medicine, whereas the University Court rejected her application. Sophia Jex-Blake then advertised and promoted her cause in national newspapers such as The Scotsman to have more women joining the movement. As a result, a second application was submitted in the summer of 1869 by a group of seven women: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell.
The second application was approved by the University Court and the women started preparing for the matriculation exam at home, in 15 Buccleuch Place, where they lived together.
The matriculation examination in 1869 was divided in two parts. The first one was composed of English, Latin and Mathematics questions, whereas candidates had to choose two subjects for the second part, including Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. The Edinburgh Seven group did significantly well by placing four women in the top seven places. Following those successful exams, the Edinburgh Seven students signed the matriculation roll and began their long and tumultuous journey to becoming doctors.
Edith Pechey passed medicalexams at the University of Bern in January 1877, her thesis was titled “Upon the constitutional causes of uterine catarrh”. Pechey then joined the College of Physicians in Ireland in May 1877. She worked as a doctor in Leeds and set up the Medical Women’s Federation, of which she was elected president in 1882.
The next year, Pechey moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) where she was in charge of the Jaffer Sulleman Dispensary for women, campaigned for women’s rights and started a nursing training programme. She married Herbert Musgrave Phipson in 1889. Ill-health and diabetes meant Pechey had to give up hospital work in 1894 but she continued her private practice. She also participated in public health measures to control bubonic plague and cholera. Pechey and her husband returned to England in 1905 where she joined the suffrage movement. In 1907 she was treated for breast cancer by May Thorne, Isabel Thorne’s daughter. Pechey died from cancer on 14 April 1908.
Sophia Jex-Blake, like Pechey, passed medical exams at the University of Bern in January 1877 and then qualified with King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland. She became the third registered woman doctor in the UK when she registered with the General Medical Council (GMC) in 1877. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to be registered with the GMC in 1859.
Jex-Blake moved back to Edinburgh and in 1886 she established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, Elsie Inglis was one of her first students. Inglis founded the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women in 1889. Jex-Blake’s School closed in 1898 when Inglis’ College gained access to clinical teaching at the Royal Infirmary. Jex-Blake continued to work at the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, which she’d founded in 1878, until 1899. Upon her retirement she and her partner Margaret Todd moved to East Sussex where Jex-Blake died on 7 January 1912.