Stage musical to sing praises of pioneering Edinburgh Seven

Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the leading figures in the long and often bitter fight for the right of women to train as doctors. Photograph: Edinburgh University Library.
Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the leading figures in the long and often bitter fight for the right of women to train as doctors. Photograph: Edinburgh University Library.
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They blazed a trail for the rights of women to study at university and practise medicine – despite being confronted by sexism, bureaucracy and even a rioting mob.

The “Edinburgh Seven” are credited with changing the course of history – despite being prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors. Now the story of the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university is set to be become a stage musical.

John Kielty and his wife Jordanna O'Neill are creating a new stage musical about the Edinburgh Seven. Picture: Neil Hanna

John Kielty and his wife Jordanna O'Neill are creating a new stage musical about the Edinburgh Seven. Picture: Neil Hanna

It will recall how they had to organise their own tuition, were charged higher fees, had doors slammed in their faces and even had mud thrown at them at Edinburgh University in the late 19th century.

Billed as “a harrowing, hilarious and heartbreaking fight based on principles and morality”, the show is being created by two married actors and theatre-makers, Jordanna O’Neill and John Kielty. The production, which currently has around 15 songs written for it, will explore how the young women took on the might of Edinburgh’s medical establishment “who do everything they can to intimidate and silence them”.

The show’s development is being backed by national arts agency Creative Scotland and the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh. It is hoped a full production will be staged to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Edinburgh Seven matriculating in 1869.

It is hoped the Edinburgh Seven show will emulate the success of Glasgow Girls, the stage musical inspired by the story of the schoolgirl campaign against the treatment of asylum seekers in the city. Kielty, who wrote several songs with his brother Martin for Glasgow Girls, is joining forces with him again on Edinburgh Seven.

The campaign was launched when Sophie Jex-Blake was accepted to study medicine but had the decision overturned because it would be too difficult and expensive to accommodate a single female student. Jex-Blaxe persuaded newspapers like The Scotsman to help encourage more women to apply and another six – Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, and Helen Evans. Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell – came forward.

The university’s website recalls how they suffered “vile everyday jealousy” which came to a head at their anatomy exam, when several hundred male students pelted them with mud, before a sheep was let loose in the hall.

O’Neill first heard about the Edinburgh Seven when she began working as an events manager two years ago at the medical museum. She said: “I came across their story when I was going through some archives. It kind of blew my mind that I’d not heard about it. What stood out for me was that it was a great success story because they were the first ever women to be admitted to a matriculated course in the UK and their initial studies were a massive success, but was ultimately a tragic story as they were chucked out.”

Kielty said: “There seems to have been a small handful of medical monopolists in their seventies and eighties who regarded medicine as a male-only pursuit and didn’t want women coming into it.

“They didn’t think their brains were big enough or would have the stomach for surgery.

“Ultimately, the university froze these women out. They tried to sue the university but the Court of Session found against them and said they should never have been admitted in the first place.

“But the injustices against them reverberated around the world and within a few years all universities in Britain were allowed to teach women. It’s a fantastic story – it’s like a movie.”

Jo Spiller, who has led a recent research project at the university into the Edinburgh Seven, said: “It is only really in the last few years that there has been any real awareness and proper recognition for them, when a plague in their honour was finally erected at Surgeons Hall. Even now, the story is not really that well known.”

A spokeswoman for Creative Scotland said: “We are confident that the combination of the play’s resonance with challenges faced by contemporary women in the work-place, and the highly talented creative team behind it, promise to attract the interest of promoters for onward production and future success.”