Remembering The Edinburgh Seven who fought for women’s right to study

Medical pioneer Sophia Jex Blake
Medical pioneer Sophia Jex Blake
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Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell

In 1869, a group of seven women made history. The “Edinburgh Seven” were the first female undergraduates to matriculate at a British university, paving the way for the universal right to higher education

Sophia Jex-Blake and her six fellow campaigners demanded the right to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and they were eventually given their wish, but not without constant struggles against sexism and bureaucracy.

The story begins with Sophia Jex-Blake applying to study medicine in March 1869. Despite the approval of the Medical Faculty and the Senatus Academus, the University Court rejected her application. Their argument was that they could not provide all the necessary arrangements “in the interest of one lady”.

Determined to get her education, Jex-Blake advertised in The Scotsman and other national papers in order to find allies to her cause. The first women to respond were Isabel Thorne and Edith Pechey.

In the summer, Jex-Blake, Pechey and Thorne submitted a further application to the University of Edinburgh, alongside two other women. Later in 1869, another two women joined the fight, creating the group which became known as the “Seven against Edinburgh”, or the “Septem contra Edinam”. These four women were Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson Marshall and Emily Bovell.

The application submitted by Jex-Blake and her allies requested full matriculation, implying that they wanted to attend all classes and sit all exams required for a full medical degree. This application was finally approved by the University Court, giving the women their first resounding victory.

The women now had to complete a matriculation examination, in order to be formally admitted to the university. Of the seven top marks in this exam, four of them were taken by women. One of the Edinburgh Seven’s fiercest opponents was Professor Robert Christison, who argued that women should not be allowed to attend the same classes as males.

Encouraged by the remarks of their teachers, the male students became increasingly rude and offensive to the Seven, shutting doors in their faces, shouting insults and laughing at them. This resentment came to a head on 18 November 1870 at the “Surgeon’s Hall Riot”, when the women had to fight through a raucous crowd to get to their anatomy exam. In 1873, despite their academic achievements, the Edinburgh Seven were not granted the degrees they had earned.

The Court of Session supported the University of Edinburgh’s right to refuse degrees to women, and argued that women should not have been admitted at all.

In spite of this terrible blow, each of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve great things, and eventually receive licenses to practice medicine. Sophia Jex-Blake helped to found the London and the Edinburgh Schools of Medicine for Women.