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Edinburgh Medicine Timeline

Edinburgh Medicine Timeline

Stories and events from Edinburgh Medicine

Opposers of the Edinburgh 7

Despite support from some professors, media outlets and the general public (see Supporters post) Sophia Jex-Blake and her group faced fierce opposition from highly influential people in positions of tremendous power.

Sir Robert Christison
The most well-known, vehement and undoubtedly most authoritative of the Edinburgh seven’s opposers was Sir Robert Christison, a widely respected and much loved Professor of almost 50 years at the University of Edinburgh. He was a member of the medical faculty, the senate, the Court, the university council and the management board of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. He had already been President of the Royal College of Physicians (twice!), would later become President of the British Medical Association and was physician to the Queen in Scotland. It was profoundly unfortunate that he was a member of every body able to hinder their cause – he could have been no better positioned to curb each and every effort made by the women.

When the Court endorsed the matriculation of the five women he threatened to resign from the university, ultimately remaining based on the harsh terms of their enrolment (detailed below) and the fact that they would not be able to graduate. Sir Christison’s views were fuelled by a devotion to past standards, a deep distrust of changing things which were not broken and a convincement that women should minister men. He refused to entertain the fact that female patients would prefer female physicians, believing the contrary and that in such instances women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!” Sophia Jex-Blake called Sir Christison “the ogre” in her diary and commented that he was “not rude but quite uncompromising”. He refused to teach the women in his subject area and prevented the women from working in the wards for two years until supporters of the women were elected onto the management board of the Royal Infirmary in 1972. He also blocked the women’s right to take more extra-mural classes – a motion seconded by Joseph Lister. It is therefore difficult to argue that one person played a more pivotal role than Sir Robert Christison in contributing to the women’s struggles and experiences of inequality, both directly and through his influence on others.

One group that Sir Christison had a considerable effect on was the university’s teaching staff. Despite Jex-Blake gathering another four women to counter the Court’s argument that they could not change the running order of things for one woman, the women still had to find lecturers to teach them separately and at double the fee-rate of their male counterparts. To their disappointment a lot of the lecturers initially supportive retracted their backing as the chance of it becoming a reality intensified, most likely for fear of how they would be judged by their male colleagues, including Sir Christison. Another factor in this was that lecturers were paid directly by their students, and not by the university. Medicine was fiercely overcrowded and competitive and the last thing male students wanted was more, clearly very intelligent, people to battle with. Professors were therefore reluctant to admit women to their classes for fear of creating angst and unrest amongst male students and their families, potentially leading to reduced payments. They aimed to please the majority of those paying for classes, male undergraduates, and often sided with them.

Arguably the most well-documented case of injustice against the women from the faculty was the Hope scholarship incident. The issue arose when it became evident that the women were intellectually excellent, and not a just a “failed experiment” as many of those who voted for their matriculation expected. Four of the five women received Honours in their first year with Edith Pechey achieving the highest grade in an end of year Chemistry exam. This entitled her to receive the Hope scholarship, an endowment which had come largely from the women’s fees, but Professor Brown, who actually was a supporter of the women and did teach them separately, awarded the prize to the highest male student instead, defending this decision based on the fact that Miss Pechey was not a member of the class. This attracted much media attention outside of Edinburgh for the first time and was just the beginning of the direct impacts male students would have.

Male Medical Students
Reports are mixed regarding the undergraduate male students’ attitudes towards the women. Despite Jex-Blake commenting that the men in their year welcomed them, the College of Surgeons apparently received 65 requests for the “removal of their grievances”. In response to these requests the College simply replied that such decisions were to be decided by individual lecturers. The male undergraduate students also petitioned to the managers of the Royal Infirmary so that women would be kept off the wards. The two excerpts below come from Sophia Jex-Blake and Edith Pechey and describe the incidents conducted by the male students that led the women to fear walking around campus alone and always travelling in a group. These events eventually culminated in one of the most outrageous but positive turning points of the women’s battle, the Surgeon’s Hall riot (see Surgeon’s Hall Riot post).

Passage written by Sophia Jex-Blake outlining the abuse received from male students

Passage written by Edith Pechey outlining the abuse received from male students

Author- Craig Liddell


Eileen Crofton. (2013). A Painful Inch to Gain.

Bell E Moberly. (1953). Storming the Citadel: the Rise of the Woman Doctor

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