A black and white photo of seven women in academic gowns and mortarboards posing on the steps of a building.

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, here’s to the Edinburgh Seven

February 11, 2024

We explore the lives of seven pioneering medical students who shaped the course of scientific history and women’s rights.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is about recognising the achievements of women and girls across all fields of scientific study. It’s a day to celebrate progress, as well as recognising ongoing problems, such as the gender pay-gap. This year, we thought we’d introduce our readers to a group of women who made a profound difference to the fortunes of women pursuing careers in medicine in Scotland and around the world.

The so-called Edinburgh Seven were the first women to study medicine at a UK university. Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell and Sophia Jex–Blake fought to allow women to qualify as doctors in Britain.

A portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake by Samuiel Lawrence (1865). She has short dark brown hair pulled back and wears a black coat or gown.
William Arthur Chase’s portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake. ImagE: Art uk/Creative Commons

It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?

Sophia Jex-Blake

Jex-Blake started the campaign in 1869 after her application to study medicine at Edinburgh University was turned down. She advertised in the national press for more women to join her in demanding the right to a place. Later that year the group started their studies in Scotland’s capital.

The women had separate classes and were charged higher fees. Edith Pechey was denied a scholarship earned through her high grades. Then, in 1870, the Surgeons’ Hall Riot occurred. The women were blocked by crowds of several hundred from sitting an anatomy exam.

Plaque reading "The Edinburgh Seven, Britain's first female medical students 1869 - 1873. The Surgeon's Hall Riot occurred here 18th November 1870."
Wikipedia/Creative commons

After four years of study, the university refused to grant any of the seven women a degree. Five went on to graduate from universities in Europe. All are now considered pioneers of women’s rights in Scotland.

In 1878, Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh as the city’s first female doctor, and in 1886 founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. In retirement she lived openly with her partner, the doctor and writer Margaret Todd.

The cover of Alasdair Gray's Poor Things. It features the title text in purple written horizontally and vertically downwards on a white border to the top and right of the cover. The central image is a painting by Gray of a large, Frankenstein like figure in a suit sitting on a sofa being hugged by a much smaller man and woman.
cover of Poor Things (1992). Acknowledgements to the Alasdair Gray ARCHIVE

And here’s a bit of bonus trivia. In Glaswegian novelist Alasdair Gray’s 1992 book Poor Things (whose film version is out now), the heroine Bella Baxter enrols in the “Sophia Jex-Blake School of Medicine for Women” and becomes a doctor. Might Sophia have been an inspiration for Bella?

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Title image: acknowledgements to Museums and Galleries Edinburgh.

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