Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) led a long and difficult struggle to open the medical profession to women in Great Britain. After many years of trying to gain admittance to a Scottish medical school, she succeeded in getting Parliament to guarantee women's right to a medical education and testing. She became licensed at the age of 37 and opened a private practice in Scotland the following year, becoming the country's first female doctor. Her tenacious fight for women to have the right to become doctors opened the door for women in the medical profession.
Sophia Jex-Blake was born to a wealthy and religious family in Sussex, England, on January 21, 1840. Her father, Thomas Jex-Blake, was a retired attorney. Her mother, Maria Jex-Blake, was often sickly. Jex-Blake's parents were devoted to their children and ran a strict religious household in which dancing, theater-going, and other "worldly amusements" were forbidden. The family's older children, a son, eight years older than Sophia, and a daughter, six years older, accepted their conservative upbringing. But Sophia was an energetic and audacious child whose strong will often clashed with her parents' expectations for their Victorian daughter. Still, Sophia and her parents had a close and loving relationship throughout their lives. "No one ever had better parents than I," Sophia often said, according to a biography by Margaret Todd.
Jex-Blake was a bright, intelligent child whose thirst for knowledge was not satisfied by the schools meant to mold Victorian girls into homemakers and mothers. Jex-Blake was shuffled from school to school because her teachers and her ailing mother found it difficult to handle her excitable behavior. Jex-Blake showed little interest in marriage and was denied participation in physical activity, such as horseback riding, that she craved.
Jex-Blake took an interest in teaching, one of the few professions open to women during the mid-19th century, and in 1858 she entered Queens College, one of the first colleges for women in England. For the first time in her life, she felt intellectually challenged. She particularly liked mathematics and tutored other students in the subject. She also learned bookkeeping. While at Queens College, Jex-Blake developed a loving friendship with Octavia Hill, who later became a social reformer. The two lived together until Hill broke off the relationship, leaving Jex-Blake devastated. She remained loyal to Hill for life. Todd wrote that a friend later said, "She was never the same again. It cut her life in two."
In 1861, Jex-Blake finished her term at Queen's College and went home. The following year, she enrolled in Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association in Scotland where she struggled to get over the loss of Hill's friendship. In addition to mathematics, Jex-Blake was very interested in religion. She had a gift for public speaking and considered becoming a missionary, but preferred teaching. She dreamed of opening a university and traveled to Germany in 1862 to study the country's education system. She took a job teaching at Grand Ducal Institute for Women in Mannheim. She was homesick and Jex-Blake had trouble in the position. Her students took advantage of the fact that she was not a strict disciplinarian. In addition, Jex-Blake was not equipped to teach the girls dancing, singing, playing, or embroidery. Although the situation eventually improved, Jex-Blake returned home after only one year.
Traveled to America
In 1865, Jex-Blake convinced her parents to allow her to travel to the United States to study its education system. "I have such a feeling that with the new world, a new life will open," she said. In Boston, she met Dr. Lucy Sewall, a 28-year-old physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Through their friendship, Jex-Blake was introduced to the field of medicine and the idea of feminism.
The trip shaped Jex-Blake's attitudes about women, education, and careers. Feminism in America was more clearly defined and advanced than in Great Britain. Jex-Blake visited schools and colleges and in 1867 published A Visit to Some American Schools and Colleges.
Jex-Blake's thoughts about religion changed while she was in the United States. She found that her religious ideas, which were considered mainstream in England, were extremely conservative in America. She gave up on the idea of becoming a minister, but she did later write some religious tracts.
Although she received no formal medical education, Jex-Blake worked along with Sewall and other doctors and students at the hospital. She learned practical hospital work, especially diseases of women. She worked as the hospital's bookkeeper and pharmacist. The experience convinced her that she should become a physician.
Jex-Blake wanted to attend Harvard so that she could obtain an education equal to a man's. She and another student requested admission to Harvard Medical School. When their request was denied, Jex-Blake persuaded some of the faculty to teach her and other women at Massachusetts General Hospital. Among her instructors was Dr. Oliver Wendall Holmes.
In 1868, Jex-Blake was admitted to the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, a new women's college founded by Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. (Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female physician in the United States.) However, she never attended the school because in the fall of 1869, Jex-Blake's father died and she returned to England.
The Struggle for a Medical Education
Dealing with her grief and adjusting once again to life in Great Britain, Jex-Blake contemplated her education options. She researched the history of women in medicine and wrote an essay titled, "Medicine as a Profession for Women," which was published in Women's Work and Women's Culture. It later appeared in her book, Medical Women.
Jex-Blake decided not to return to the United States. Instead, she pursued her medical education in Great Britain. In 1869, she was admitted to Edinburgh University's medical school, but the university later overturned the decision. Jex-Blake began a long and tenacious campaign for admittance, attracting international attention along the way. In 1870, Jex-Blake and four other women were admitted to the school. They had to attend separate classes for women and pay higher tuition than men. But negative pressure continued and in 1869, the university discontinued the separate classes and advised the women to seek training at a local teaching hospital, the Royal Infirmary. The hospital refused to comply. The women were harassed by opponents, although there were sympathizers among the faculty, students, and in the community.
In November, the conflict came to a head in what became known as the riot at Surgeons' Hall. When the ladies, now numbering seven, arrived for a class, 200 protesters blocked their entry to the classroom. The women were subjected to howls and jostling, according to The Courant, an Edinburgh newspaper. The incident earned publicity worldwide and the women gained sympathy and support. Among the seven students was Edith Pechey, a loyal friend of Jex-Blake's. They worked side-by-side throughout the struggle and remained lifelong friends.
Jex-Blake led the students to file a lawsuit against the university for failing to allow them to complete their medical education. They won the suit, but lost an appeal. The women finally took their fight to Parliament where, after a difficult battle, they succeeded in getting supporters to pass a bill that allowed all medical schools in Great Britain to admit women. However, many institutions still denied women the right to take medical exams.
Throughout the long struggle, Jex-Blake and the other women had received instruction from sympathetic faculty. Jex-Blake completed her medical education in Switzerland and in 1877, Jex-Blake and four other women passed their medical exams at the College of Physicians in Dublin, Ireland. At the age of 37, Jex-Blake was now a licensed medical practitioner.
Established Medical Practice
Jex-Blake's strong will, which had confounded her parents and teachers when she was young, had helped her win women's right to medical education. Her determination and leadership were recognized on both sides as the driving force behind the movement. Pechey was quoted in the Jex-Blake biography, saying, "All we had done towards opening up the medical profession to women was due mainly to Miss Jex-Blake, who had got all the abuse because she had done all the work—in fact all along she had done the work of three women or … of ten men!"
Although she was a strong administrator, Jex-Blake was also difficult to work with. Her impulsive and autocratic manner led to a deep disappointment concerning a women's medical school she co-founded. Jex-Blake and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson founded The London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. Anderson was a London physician who had been educated in France and had introduced Jex-Blake to the cause of women's medical education in the 1860s. Jex-Blake expected to be named the London School's secretary, but because her temperament was considered inappropriate for the position, Jex-Blake was passed over in favor of Anderson.
Jex-Blake left London and established a private practice in Edinburgh, becoming Scotland's first female doctor in 1878. Eventually, she opened a cottage hospital known as the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. She remained active in the women's medical movement as there were continuous efforts in Parliament to restrict women's ability to become doctors.
In 1881, Maria Jex-Blake died. Jex-Blake had been devoted to her mother throughout her life and the two had frequently exchanged loving and supportive letters. Jex-Blake withdrew from her practice, leaving the responsibility to a young assistant. The assistant maintained the practice and worked on laboratory experiments regarding the insolubility of fats. The experiments proved to be toxic and the assistant died. Jex-Blake was devastated by the loss of these two relationships. She gave up her practice and stayed with her friend Ursula DuPre, who nursed her back to physical and mental health. After two years, Jex-Blake moved back to Edinburgh and resumed her practice. She wrote The Care of Infants and a second edition of Medical Women.
Jex-Blake continued advocating for female medical students, who were still required to attend separate classes at the Edinburgh University. Her advocacy led to the formation of a women's college similar to the London School— the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, under the direction of Jex-Blake. She negotiated with a hospital to provide clinical training, making it possible for Scottish women to obtain a complete medical education for the first time.
The school functioned successfully for a year before Jex-Blake's unyielding personality clashed with students who found her to be inflexible. The bitter conflict led some students to found a new medical school for women. When many chose it over the Edinburgh School, financial difficulties arose. However, Jex-Blake was so dedicated to the cause of women's medical education that she never criticized the rival school. She supported it wholeheartedly because it advanced the cause of women's medical education.
In 1894, the Edinburgh University finally opened its medical exams to women, breaking one more barrier to women's ability to become doctors. That same year, the National Association for the Medical Education of Women honored Jex-Blake for her 25 years of dedication to women's medical education.
Retired at Age 59
The Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women remained open until 1898, when low enrollment forced its closure. Jex-Blake continued her private practice until 1899 when she retired to Sussex. Jex-Blake's business and home were acquired by Edinburgh Hospital and operated as Bruntsfield Hospital until 1989.
In retirement, Jex-Blake lived with Margaret Todd, a former student who was 20 years her junior. Todd, who was also a novelist, gave up her medical career after only five years to be with Jex-Blake. The two women spent their time reading, traveling, entertaining, and corresponding with friends. Jex-Blake remained interested in social causes, including the suffrage movement, which she supported.
Jex-Blake was very proud of her students' successes. She happily followed their careers and called them "my daughters," "my young girls," or "my doctors." She corresponded with hundreds of people during her life and kept all their letters. She also chronicled her life in voluminous diaries.
In her later years, Jex-Blake suffered a series of heart attacks and other ailments. She died on January 7, 1912, at the age of 71. She willed her possessions, including her personal papers, to Todd, who wrote a biography, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake, in 1918. In accordance with Jex-Blake's wishes, Todd destroyed the personal papers after the book was published. A few months later, Todd committed suicide at the age of 58.
Todd, Margaret, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake, MacMillan and Co., 1918.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Anne Commire, editor, Yorkin Publications, 1999.