Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake, first British woman doctor

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912) was a rebellious child from the very start, “fresh, willful, and naughty.”1 She attended Queen’s College in London over the objection of her very conservative father, who upon graduation allowed her to take up a position as a mathematics tutor only if she did not take a salary (1859). After teaching there for three years she briefly went to Germany (1862), then was asked to open a girl’s school in Manchester, in preparation for which she visited America in 1869. Meeting there a group of women doctors and impressed by their work, she volunteered at the hospital; decided to switch from teaching to medicine; applied and was rejected by Harvard Medical School (1867); but attended briefly the Women’s Hospital in New York.

Having to return to England because of her father’s illness, she became the leader of a long campaign to allow women to be admitted to medical school. Despite strong opposition, she and six women, the famous Edinburgh Seven, were admitted to the Edinburgh Medical School (1869). But they had to take separate classes, and the instructors one by one refused to teach them, leading to the courses being suspended; and although the women sued the University, they were unsuccessful (1873).

She did not give up however. She continued to campaign, graduated in medicine from the University of Bern, and was successful in having Parliament pass an act allowing women into medicine. She then passed the qualifying exams in Ireland and she and four other women became able to enter the practice of medicine. She opened an outpatient clinic in Edinburgh (1878), was later involved in founding two medical schools for women and a women’s hospital; and is justly regarded as one of the most important pioneers who made it possible for British women to become doctors.

 

Reference

  1. Edythe Lutzker, Women Gain a Place in Medicine. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 41.

 

Portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake Aged 25
Sophia Jex-Blake Aged 25 by Samuel Laurence. 1865. From the book “The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake” by Margaret Todd. Public Domain.

 


 

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