Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake, the daughter of Thomas Jex-Blake and Mary Cubitt, was born at 3 Croft Place, Hastings on 21st January, 1840. Thomas Jex-Blake was a successful barrister, but he had retired at the time of her birth.

In 1851 the family moved to 13 Sussex Square, Brighton. Sophia attended several private boarding-schools as a child. Sophia's parents were Evangelical Anglicans who held very traditional views on education and at first refused permission for her to study at college.

Eventually Dr. Jex-Blake gave his permission and in 1858 Sophia began attending classes at Queen's College in Harley Street. Two of her fellow students were Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss. One of her teachers was the Reverand John Maurice, one of the founders of the Christian Socialist movement. He told her: "The vocation of a teacher is an awful one… she will do others unspeakable harm if she is not aware of its usefulness… How can you give a woman self-respect, how can you win for her the respect of others… Watch closely the first utterances of infancy, the first dawnings of intelligence; how thoughts spring into acts, how acts pass into habits. The study is not worth much if it is not busy about the roots of things."

Sophia did so well that she was asked to become a tutor of mathematics at the college. Sophia's parents believed it was wrong for middle-class women to work and only gave their approval after she agreed not to accept a salary. During this period she shared a house in Nottingham Place with Octavia Hill and her family.

While in London became friends with a group of feminists that included Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett, Adelaide Anne Procter, and Emily Faithfull. According to Louisa Garrett Anderson: "They were comrades and worked for a great end." Eventually, most of these women became involved in the struggle for women's suffrage.

In 1862 Jex-Blake spent several months in Edinburgh being taught by private tutors. She also helped Elizabeth Garrett to prepare her application to University of Edinburgh for enrolment as a medical student. The two had previously met in London, but during Elizabeth's visit to Edinburgh, Jex-Blake learned more about the problems facing women who wished to practise medicine.

After Queen's College, Sophia spent time teaching in Germany and the United States. When she returned she wrote a book about his experiences A Visit to Some American Schools and Colleges (1867). Sophia had been especially impressed with the experiments in the United States with co-education. While in America she met Dr. Lucy Sewell, the resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women. Sophia now decided she would rather be a doctor rather than a teacher.

Sophia Jex-Blake wrote a pamphlet, Medicine as a Profession for Women (1869), where she argued the case for women doctors: "One argument usually advanced against the practice of medicine by women is that there is no demand for it; that women, as a rule, have little confidence in their own sex, and had rather be attended by a man… it is probably a fact, that until lately there has been no demand for women doctors, because it does not occur to most people to demand what does not exist; but that very many women have wished that they could be medically attended by those of their own sex I am very sure, and I know of more than one case where ladies have habitually gone through one confinement after another without proper attendance, because the idea of employing a man was so extremely repugnant to them."

Sophia Jex-Blake began to explore the possibility of training as a doctor. This was a problem as British medical schools refused to accept women students. She eventually persuaded University of Edinburgh to allow her and her friend, Edith Pechy, to attend medical lectures. This annoyed the male students and attempts were made to stop them receiving teaching and taking their examinations. As Jex-Blake later pointed out: "On the afternoon of Friday 18th November 1870, we walked to the Surgeon's Hall, where the anatomy examination was to be held. As soon as we reached the Surgeon's Hall we saw a dense mob filling up the road… The crowd was sufficient to stop all the traffic for an hour. We walked up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed in our faces by a number of young men." Shirley Roberts adds: "Then a sympathetic student emerged from the hall; he opened the gate and ushered the women inside. They took their examination and all passed." Although Jex-Blake and Pechy both passed their examinations, university regulations only allowed medical degrees to be given to men. The British Medical Association therefore refused to register the women as doctors.

Sophia Jex-Blake's case generated a great deal of publicity and Russell Gurney, a M.P. who supported women's rights, decided to try and change the law. In 1876 Gurney managed to persuade Parliament to pass a bill that empowered all medical training bodies to educate and graduate women on the same terms as men. The first educational institution to offer this opportunity to women was the Irish College of Physicians. Sophia took up their offer and qualified as a doctor in 1877.

In June 1878, Jex-Blake opened a medical practice at 4 Manor Place; three months later she established a dispensary (an out-patient clinic) for impoverished women at 73 Grove Street, Fountainbridge. These ventures were highly successful but after the death of one of her assistants, she suffered from depression. She closed her practice and left the dispensary in the care of her medical colleagues.

Sophia Jex-Blake remained inactive for several years but eventually decided to join forces with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in her efforts to establish a Medical School for women. In 1887 they opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. In its second year the school was disrupted by disputes between Jex-Blake and several of the students who resented her imposition of strict rules of conduct.

One of her close friends, Dr Margaret Todd, the author of The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (1918), once said: "She was impulsive, she made mistakes and would do so to the end of her life: her naturally hasty temper and imperious disposition had been chastened indeed, but the chastening fire had been far too fierce to produce perfection … But there was another side to the picture after all. Many of those who regretted and criticised details were yet forced to bow before the big transparent honesty, the fine unflinching consistency of her life." While in Edinburgh, Sophia played an active role in the local Women's Suffrage Society.

When Dr. Jex-Blake, dismissed two students for what Elsie Inglis considered to be a trivial offence, she obtained funds from her father and some of his wealthy friends, and established a rival medical school, the Scottish Association for the Medical Education for Women.

In 1899 Jex-Blake retired to Windydene, a small farm at Mark Cross, some 5 miles south of Tunbridge Wells. Sophia Jex-Blake continued to campaign for women's suffrage until her death at Windydene on 7th January 1912.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Reverand John Maurice, one of the founders of the Christian Socialist movement, was a great supporter to women's education. In 1848 he became the first head of Queen's College in Harley Street, a new training school for women teachers. The first group of students included Dorothea Beale, Sophia Jex-Blake and Frances Mary Buss. In his inaugural lecture he explained his ideas on teaching.

The vocation of a teacher is an awful one… she will do others unspeakable harm if she is not aware of its usefulness… How can you give a woman self-respect, how can you win for her the respect of others… Watch closely the first utterances of infancy, the first dawnings of intelligence; how thoughts spring into acts, how acts pass into habits. The study is not worth much if it is not busy about the roots of things.

(2) Elizabeth Garrett finally received her medical degree by taking an examination at Paris Medical School. On 20th June 1870 she received a letter of congratulations from Sophia Jex-Blake and the other six women training to be doctors in Edinburgh.

Our hearty congratulations on the brilliant success at Paris which has at length crowned your many years of arduous work - work whose difficulties perhaps no one can estimate so well as ourselves. And while congratulating you on receiving the highest honour of your profession from one of the finest medical schools in the world, we desire to express also our appreciation of the example you have afforded to others, and the honour you have reflected on all women who have chosen medicine as their profession.

(3) In 1869 Sophia Jex-Blake wrote a booklet, Medicine as a Profession for Women, where she attempted to answer some of the objections made against women becoming doctors.

One argument usually advanced against the practice of medicine by women is that there is no demand for it; that women, as a rule, have little confidence in their own sex, and had rather be attended by a man… it is probably a fact, that until lately there has been "no demand" for women doctors, because it does not occur to most people to demand what does not exist; but that very many women have wished that they could be medically attended by those of their own sex I am very sure, and I know of more than one case where ladies have habitually gone through one confinement after another without proper attendance, because the idea of employing a man was so extremely repugnant to them.

I have indeed repeatedly found that even doctors, not altogether favourable to the present movement, allow that they consider men rather out of place in midwifery practice; and an eminent American doctor once remarked to me, that he never entered a lady's room to attend her in confinement without wishing to apologise for what he felt to be an intrusion.

In England there is at present only one woman legally qualified to practise medicine, and I understand that already her time is much more fully occupied, and her receipts much greater, than is usually the case with a medical man who has been practising for so short a period.

(4) In 1869 Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechy and three other women were allowed to attend medical lectures at University of Edinburgh. The male medical students objected to women being trained as doctors and attempted to stop the women taking their medical exams. Sophia Jex-Blake wrote about her experiences in 1878.

On the afternoon of Friday 18th November 1870, we walked to the Surgeon's Hall, where the anatomy examination was to be held. As soon as we reached the Surgeon's Hall we saw a dense mob filling up the road… The crowd was sufficient to stop all the traffic for an hour. We walked up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed in our faces by a number of young men.

(5) In 1873 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested that women should go abroad to obtain their medical qualifications. Sophia Jex-Blake wrote a letter to The Times disagreeing with this point of view.

Mrs. Garrett Anderson has selected the very worst of all the alternatives suggested when she advises Englishwomen to go abroad for medical education… Mrs. Garrett Anderson's advice is premature in the extreme… Let me conclude that all women who wish to study medicine join the class already formed in Edinburgh, the great majority of whose members are thoroughly of one mind with me in this matter and who, having counted the cost, are like myself, thoroughly resolved to "fight it out on this line."

(6) In her booklet Medicine as a Profession for Women, Sophia Jex-Blake compared the situation in Britain with other European countries.

While women in Britain are prevented from studying for medical degrees… other European nations have taken a very different position. We have already seen the Italian Universities were in fact never closed to women, and that at Bologna no less than three women held Professors' chairs in the Medical faculty. We have several instances of degrees granted to women in the Middle Ages by the Universities of Bologna, Padua, Milan, Pavia and others… In Germany also such instances have occurred. At the University of Paris three women are now studying in its Medical School.

(7) In a book she wrote in 1939, Louisa Garrett Anderson described how in 1859 a group of women under the leadership of Barbara Bodichon, began meeting at Langham Place in London.

In 1859 Barbara Bodichon had started an office in Langham Place to act as a bureau for helping women to find paid work. By 1861 Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett, Sophia Jex-Blake, Louise Smith, Emily Faithfull, Anne Proctor and many others met there. It was a centre of feminism. They were comrades and worked for a great end. The need felt by women for openings to paid employment was written in the office books. Louie Smith said to her hairdresser: 'Surely, now, hairdressing is a calling suitable for women?' 'Impossible, madam, he said, 'I myself took a fortnight to learn it.'

(8) Editorial, Time and Tide (17th October, 1924)

In 1874 the London School of Medicine for Women was founded by Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1877 its students were admitted to the wards of the Royal Free Hospital for clinical studies. In the same year the King's and Queen's College of Physicians (Ireland) admitted some women to their final examinations and the University of London decided to open its medical examinations to women.

This short statement gives the bare facts of the culminating point in the great struggle for the admission of women to the medical profession, a struggle which called for and found enduring courage and a brave and buoyant spirit in those who finally overcame the great difficulties which one after another were encountered. The story of the struggle is thrilling to read and offers great encouragement in this our own time to those still trying to obtain for women the opportunities to use their powers in the service of the community in whatever way gives them the greatest scope.

Before the founding of the school, Miss Jex-Blake and the comrades who joined her, had made a gallant fight for medical women in Edinburgh. The University in 1869 allowed them to matriculate and enter as medical students but in 1874 decided that in making the regulations which admitted them it had legally exceeded its powers, and therefore the students who had spent four years of hard work and much money in obtaining the necessary courses to prepare for their final examinations were not allowed to sit for them. After leaving Edinburgh some of them qualified in France and Switzerland, but Miss Jex-Blake and some others decided to continue their attempt to find in their own country some qualifying examination which would admit them to the profession. One such was found in an examination in Midwifery at the College of Surgeons, England, which apparently could not be closed to women and which if passed would have admitted them to the Medical Register and to practice. Two women applied as candidates, but rather than examine them the whole Board of Examiners resigned and was not re-appointed!

Then came the founding of the school in 1874, but when the three years' curriculum which has been arranged was completed, the women who had taken it seemed as far off as ever from their goal as still no examination was open to them. The subscriptions amounting to £1,903 and the students' fees of £1,219 had all been spent in classes and maintenance and in the summer of 1877 no classes were held, but Miss Jex-Blake and her supporters still fought with indomitable courage and in that year as has been seen their courage received its reward and the necessary doors were opened and the way was made clear for women to qualify.

In 1874 when the school opened there were two women (Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson) on the Medical Register. Today there are over 2,000, of whom more than half have received their training at the school. This number great though it may be in comparison with those of early days, is still small in reality and in comparison with the total number of medical practitioners (over 40,000). It also falls very far short of the number there must be if, of women (who exceed men by some million odd in the total population of this country) all those who desire to do so are to be enabled to have the services of practitioners of their own sex.