United Kingdom, 1870. Charles Dickens dies in Rochester. The postal headquarters puts Victoria’s face on the new Three Halfpence Red stamp. In Edinburgh, Sophia Jex-Blake and the first female medical degree candidates push through a mob to take exams. Calling them candidates is putting it generously and falsely: they were admitted as full students but flatly denied a degree. They had to fund their own segregated lectures.
This was not the first opposition that Jex-Blake had encountered. After boarding school, Jex-Blake enrolled at London’s Queen’s College, despite her parents’ objections. She entered the University of Edinburgh in 1870, but by law wasn’t awarded an MD until a Parliamentary tide turn in 1877. She started a medical practice the next year and later co-founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. She worked for women’s rights until she died in 1912.
The medical establishment mostly saw female doctors like Jex-Blake as bacillus threatening the healthy organism. We male doctors will do just fine, thank you very much. Even the most liberal-minded colleagues confusedly stroked their mustaches at these corseted enigmas to either be hated or loved.
Sophia Jex-Blake rises up in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, who entered medical school just three years after Jex-Blake left. She was, by then, infamous and enshrouded in legend as would be his own Baskerville hound. Doyle was known to value independent, intelligent women like Jex-Blake – unusual in Victorian UK. He nods directly at her in his story “The Doctors of Hoyland,” where the central protagonist Dr. James Ripley is bested by a female doctor, who turns out to be a better practitioner than him, which both irritates Ripley and makes him fall in love with her. (She turns him down for her practice.)
[Sir Arthur Conan] Doyle was known to value independent, intelligent women like Jex-Blake – unusual in Victorian UK.
Women like SJB redefined social and professional possibilities. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson outsmarted the system and earned her medical certificate through the Society of Apothecaries. Writer Adelaide Anne Procter was published by Dickens. Elsie Bowerman survived the Titanic then became the first female lawyer in London.
We get a more direct picture of Sophia through her contemporaries. “She was one of those people who really do live,” wrote her biographer and partner Dr. Margaret Todd. She was hot-tempered, honest, stern with her students, loving to her family despite their differences, impulsive, intricate. When her parents once commissioned a simple drawing of her, she sat for hours until the artist threw down his pencil and growled, “I must get you in oils or not at all.”
On that Friday in November 1870, Jex-Blake and the female students walked to the Surgeon’s Hall to take their anatomy exam. They pushed through the dense mob of protestors for an hour until they reached the gates, which male students slammed in their faces. They find an opening in the gate. They squeeze through. They take their exams, and pass. Jex-Blake opened up for women the possibility of careers and financial independence. Her motto: Not me, but us. Her maneuvers through life became the movement for all women. She found a disease in the professional meritocracy, she opened up the body, and operated.
FOLLOWING HER LEGACY: What, to you, is worth crusading for?
Learn more about Sophia by reading The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake, A Woman Pioneer, and Teller of Tales: The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Image via Lothian Health Services Archive on That Makes Wonders