Tribute paid to first UK women to go to university

Fiona Hyslop admires the plaque with Jo Spiller, who nominated the Edinburgh Seven for recognition. Picture: Neil Hanna
Fiona Hyslop admires the plaque with Jo Spiller, who nominated the Edinburgh Seven for recognition. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE first women to be admitted on a degree programme at any British university have been commemorated with a plaque at Edinburgh University .

The pioneering female students, known collectively as the “Edinburgh Seven”, matriculated to study medicine in 1869.

Sophia Jex-Blake was one of the leading figures in the long and often bitter fight for the right of women to train as doctors. Picture: Contributed

Sophia Jex-Blake was one of the leading figures in the long and often bitter fight for the right of women to train as doctors. Picture: Contributed

The Historic Scotland plaque celebrates Sophia Jex-Blake (pictured right), Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell.

The women’s campaign for the right to train and practice as doctors led to the Surgeons’ Hall riot, after they were verbally abused and pelted with refuse as they attempted to 
attend an anatomy exam.

The plaque was unveiled by Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, who paid tribute to the group during a ceremony at the university’s Anatomical Museum.

Ms Hyslop said: “Their determination to simply attend university and study medicine is an endeavour we take for granted these days, but at the time their actions were extraordinary enough to attract widespread criticism from all areas of society, even inciting a riot on the streets of Edinburgh.”

The women are among eight historical groups or figures recognised by the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme, now in its fourth year.

The scheme is designed to celebrate the life and achievements of significant historic figures through the erection of a plaque on the home where they lived, or a building synonymous with their achievements.

The plaque is due to be mounted on one of the gateposts of the Royal College of Surgeons in Nicolson Street as soon as maintenance work to that building is complete.

Professor Jane Norman, vice-principal of people and culture at Edinburgh University, said: “The Surgeons’ Hall riot marked a turning point in the campaign for women’s right to a university education – attracting widespread publicity and winning greater political support. I am delighted that the Edinburgh Seven are being recognised for their role in this important historical moment and the drive for equality in education.”

The Surgeons’ Hall riot, which occurred on November 18, 1870, was a defining moment in the campaign of the Edinburgh Seven.

Following months of harassment and bullying, the women were to attend an anatomy exam at Surgeons’ Hall but were confronted by a large crowd of students and onlookers. They were verbally abused and pelted with refuse, and the gate to the building was slammed in their face.

They were eventually able to gain access, possibly thanks to helpful janitors or sympathetic male students. The exam was further interrupted when Poor Mailie, the pet sheep of the college, was let loose in the room.

The riots and their negative portrayal in the national media led to increased awareness of the Edinburgh Seven, and a rise in public sympathy for the women and their fight to study medicine.

newsen@edinburghnews.com