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?

Support our campaign work, make a donation today

Our campaign work is funded by the generous support of our members and supporters. Support our campaign work and help to create a fairer Scotland and world.

Handwriting a letter

Join us!

Your membership will help to fund our campaign work to make Scotland a more secular, rational, and socially just country, and to ensure everyone in Scotland has access to humanist ceremonies to mark important life events.

Two people in a conference crowd laughing

Title image: acknowledgements to Museums and Galleries Edinburgh.

Latest Related Stories

A view of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Circular rows of desks are arranged on the floor but most of the picture is taken up by the ceiling artwork, a textured sculpture in a blue, green, orange, and yellow colour wash with stalactite like formations handing down from it.

We tell UN human rights committee that compulsory religious observance in Scottish schools must end

We tell UN human rights committee that compulsory religious observance in Scottish schools must end
Brian Souter gesticulates with his arms as he speaks. He is wearing a blue suit with a stagecoach logo and has short brown hair, balding on top.

We comment on Humza Yousaf’s relationship with evangelical businessman Brian Souter, funder of US-based organisations alleged to have covered up sexual assault in US

We comment on Humza Yousaf’s relationship with evangelical businessman Brian Souter, funder of US-based organisations alleged to have covered up sexual assault in US
Portrait photo of Tony who wears an aviator jacket and adjusts a brimmed hat (perhaps a panama or fedora type hat, with a feather in the band) while smiling at the camera. He wears glasses and a snood.

Humanist Society interview series: board member Tony Khan on claiming asylum and finding strength in adversity

Humanist Society interview series: board member Tony Khan on claiming asylum and finding strength in adversity
Recep Erdogan speaks into a microphone at a press event infront of a blue backdrop with large white text on it (illegible). He has short greying black hair swept to one side and a moustache. He wears a blue suit and tie.

Humanist Society speaks out on Humza Yousaf’s invitation to Scotland for Recep Erdoğan

Humanist Society speaks out on Humza Yousaf’s invitation to Scotland for Recep Erdoğan