The Edinburgh Seven

The history of women scientists is indeed arduous. Their participation in the profession was often restricted or prohibited, and it took some strong-willed, determined women to begin changing the system. Which leads us to the question, have you ever heard of the Edinburgh Seven? These 7 women stubbornly battled for their right to study medicine and they became the first women medical students at Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom. In other words, they are true trailblazers.

Paving the way

Before these 7 ladies began their fight to study, a few other fierce women had already begun to pave the way: In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell, British by birth, received her medical degree from Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, becoming the first woman in the United States to achieve a medical degree. A few years later, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was confronted with her own challenges: disregarding her qualifications and previous education (she had hired a private tutor to study anatomy and physiology and had worked for six months as a surgery nurse), several Medical schools including Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, St Andrews and the Royal College of Surgeons all rejected her application. She persevered, however, and finally was admitted by the Society of Apothecaries to study, where she received her license in 1865. The irony of the situation was that, immediately after obtaining her license, the Society of Apothecaries amended their rules and regulations to bar any other women from receiving a medical license from their institution.

We’re stronger together

Clearly, there was still much work to be done. In the 1860s, Sophia Jex-Blake, who would become the leader of the Edinburgh Seven, was in the United States and planning on enrolling in the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which was founded by Elizabeth Blackwell. However, when her father died, she chose to return to England. Unable to find a medical school that accepted her, she tried her luck in Scotland, at Edinburgh University.

Again, she was rejected. The Medical Faculty would not consider mixed classes, and it would also not support an individual class for one female student. So, what else could Jex-Blake do, except recruit more female students?

And thus, the Edinburgh seven was formed: Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Edith Pechey, Isobel Thorne, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell joined Sophia Jex-Blake in 1869 to study medicine by funding their own segregated courses at Edinburgh University.

Not out of the woods, yet

Although these seven women had succeeded in enrolling at Edinburgh University, they faced many difficulties. Their enrollment sparked anger from the general public, and a group even went so far as to organize a mob to prevent the women from attending one of their exams, an event which would later be known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riot.

They also faced continued complications with the university administration itself. After having passed all of their finals (not to mention having paid all enrollment fees), the women were ultimately denied their degrees, a decision which was upheld in the Court of Session, who also ruled that the women should never have been admitted to the university at all.

However, this tale does not end sadly

Not to be thwarted, Sophia Jex-Blake moved to London and was instrumental in establishing the London School of Medicine for Women, alongside Elizabeth Garret Anderson and Elizabeth Blackwell. Five of the original seven went on to receive medical degrees from either Bern, Paris or Dublin in the early 1870s, and in the 1970s, government legislation began changing. By the end of the century, it had already become much more common for women to attend university, and although Edinburgh University resisted, in 1889, it finally began to admit women undergraduates.

These brave and persistent actions by the Edinburgh Seven (and their predecessors) helped pave the way for future generations of female doctors, breaking down walls and setting a strong example of what women are truly capable, and their story deserves to be shared!


For Women in Science

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