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Jex-Blake, Sophia (Louisa)

women medicine medical students

(1840–1912) British physician: pioneer for medical education for women in Britain.

Sophia Jex-Blake was born in Hastings, the youngest daughter of Thomas Jex-Blake, a lawyer. Her brother Thomas William became headmaster of Rugby and dean of Wells. She studied at Queen’s College for Women in London and became tutor in mathematics there (1859–61). In 1865 she went to the USA to study medicine at Boston with Lucy Sewall and , but returned to England on the death of her father in 1869.

She found that medical schools in England would not admit women, and the Society of Apothecaries had closed the loophole that enabled to qualify and practise in Britain. The Medical Act of 1858 excluded foreign qualifications from the Medical Register (registration being needed to practise medicine legally in Britain), so preventing followers of Elizabeth Blackwell’s course of entry from practice in England.

Sophia Jex-Blake then began a heated campaign for acceptance into Edinburgh University to study medicine. After initial acceptance by the Senate of separate classes for women, five women, including Jex-Blake, matriculated in 1869. Difficulties occurred when tutors were reluctant to teach the women; they were then refused admittance to the Royal Infirmary. Students raised a petition against their admission (a necessary part of their course) and as Sophia Jex-Blake and the other female students attempted to enter Surgeon’s Hall a riot broke out among students of divided opinion. A libel action followed in 1871 when Jex-Blake was accused of leading the riot; she was awarded a farthing in damages (and had to pay a legal bill of nearly £1000). After further obstacles she brought a legal action against the university for not honouring its contract to admit the women to degree examinations; judgement in their favour was reversed in 1873 on the grounds that in admitting the women to matriculation the university had acted ultra vires.

Sophia Jex-Blake had a tempestuous personality, abrasive and emotional. Her battles were a gift to the newspapers but her struggles and humiliations had the value of changing public opinion. In 1874 she gathered together a group of sympathetic people to form the London School of Medicine for Women, which opened in 1874 with a staff of lecturers including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. However Jex-Blake’s personality made her unsuitable to serve as secretary and she was not qualified to teach; she became an active spur on its council. It was the quiet, diplomatic Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was appointed dean in 1883. In 1876 the Russell Gurney Enabling Act went through Parliament allowing medical examining bodies to test women. Clinical work was secured when the (Royal) Free Hospital admitted women students in 1877. Later that year the King and Queen’s College of Physicians, Dublin, agreed to act as examiners and in 1877 Sophia Jex-Blake and her four co-students from Edinburgh graduated.

Sophia Jex-Blake settled in Scotland and practised medicine in Edinburgh; in 1886 she organized a medical school for women there, again amid controversy. It was not until 1894 that the University of Edinburgh admitted women to graduate in medicine. (See panel overleaf.)

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