Seven women’s efforts to overcome the sexism they encountered while studying medicine did not end as they had hoped – but they did clear the way for others to fulfil their own ambitions. Jennifer Trueland reports on their long-awaited recognition
The names of seven women will be among those called to graduate MB ChB at the University of Edinburgh this summer.
One hundred and fifty years after they enrolled as the UK’s first female medical students, the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ will be awarded their degrees, albeit posthumously, and on an honorary basis.
Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Sophia Jex-Blake, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne will be honoured on 6 July.
This is not only for their academic achievements – says Edinburgh University principal Peter Mathieson – but in recognition of the significant contribution they made to widening access to a university education for generations to come.
One young woman who is glad to tip her hat to her forebears is medical student Rebecca Murphy Lonergan.
When she took up her place to study medicine in Scotland’s capital she had never heard of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’. Now, she is on a mission to ensure that as many people as possible get to hear about the pioneering women, as well as to continue their fight for gender equality in the medical profession.
‘When I did find out about the “Edinburgh Seven”, I felt very proud to know that I was at a university with such an important heritage,’ says Ms Lonergan (pictured below). ‘We should all be grateful to them for fighting for the rights of women to study medicine.’
By the end of this year it is likely that Ms Lonergan will get her wish and more people will have heard their extraordinary tale.
While the women won their fight to enroll as medical students at the University of Edinburgh in 1869, they were soon to find that the battle wasn’t over.
They might now be honoured by institutions such as the university and medical royal colleges with degrees and exhibitions, but it was a different story back then; it also has some resonance today.
The story began with Sophia Jex-Blake, who, when she initially applied to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh (because she thought Scottish universities might be more enlightened than those in England), was told they could not make arrangements for just one woman.
There was no suggestion that she could train alongside the men. She advertised for others to join her, six answered the call and they began their course.
‘There was a big crowd waiting for them, calling them names and throwing mud at them’
From the beginning there was opposition in some quarters, explains Jo Spiller, who is studying the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ as part of a research master’s degree.
‘The most steadfast opponent was a man called Robert Christison, who was the Queen’s physician in Scotland,’ she says. ‘He thought women who wanted to study medicine must have “unclean motives”.’
Another man, a Professor Laycock, said in a debate held by the University Council in 1870, said that teachers might find they were harbouring ‘Magdalenes’ in their classes, according to a contemporary report from The Times.
The boiling tensions surrounding the women being allowed to study medicine came to a head when they went to Surgeon’s Hall to sit an anatomy exam on 18 November 1870.
‘There was a big crowd waiting for them, calling them names and throwing mud at them,’ says Ms Spiller.
‘Then some students pushed a sheep through the door.’
This incident won the women some public sympathy, however, with supporters including famous names such as Charles Darwin.
Despite their efforts, and their undoubted capabilities, the university – backed by the court of session – ruled that the women would not be allowed to graduate, and that they shouldn’t have been allowed to enroll in the first place.
However, the door had been pushed open, and by the end of the 19th century women were not only allowed to study medicine but to graduate and work as doctors.
For Glasgow GP Patricia Moultrie, the story of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ is a reminder of how far women in medicine have come.
‘They were fighting to study medicine in 1869 – that’s less than a hundred years before I was born, and, as I get older, 100 years doesn’t seem very long at all. It made me realise the huge strides we’ve made.’
Having said that, Dr Moultrie concedes that discriminatory behaviour and attitudes persisted well into the 20th century, with some people still showing the prejudice that led the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ to be branded unnatural for wanting to study medicine.
‘At school, I remember one [male] teacher saying to me it was no job for a woman, although everyone else was very supportive,’ she says.
‘But that just spurred me on.
‘I also remember that after I’d qualified as a GP I was applying for a full-time partnership and wasn’t getting anywhere, so I asked a GP at one of the practices why I hadn’t been called for interview.
'He said they’d had lots of applicants so they’d put all the female applications in the bin – that was their first sift. I changed direction and took up a part-time partnership and combined it with other things, which suited me very well.’
She believes parental leave arrangements were less developed than they are now, which could have made GPs wary of taking on female partners because they were worried about what would happen if they took maternity leave – something she hopes would not happen today.
As joint deputy chair of the BMA Scottish GPs committee, she believes that efforts to create and promote equality of opportunity continue in Scotland to this day.
‘I felt very proud to know that I was at a university with such an important heritage’
‘I believe that being a GP partner allows women more self-determination, and the new Scotland-only GP contract promotes partnerships, reduces the risks associated with being a GP partner, and improves work-life balance.
‘But while that’s all good news, there is still work to be done, for example, in examining the gender pay gap, which a recent report showed was worse in general practice.
‘We hope that the minimum income guarantee in the new Scottish GP contract and the intended move to an income range in phase two of the contract will help address that.’
As a teenager, it never crossed Theresa Peltz’s mind that her gender might hold her back. ‘I didn’t really think about it – I went to an all-girls school and I never felt there was anything that I couldn’t do,’ she says.
Now in her fifth year studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh she is a little more circumspect.
‘I think there is still some way to go before it’s the same for women as it is for men,’ she says.
Although she was initially surprised when on placement in some specialties (notably surgery) to see how few women there were in consultant posts, she says she has not personally experienced any discrimination.
‘Some of the more elderly patients have called me “nurse”, but that’s OK,’ she says. ‘They don’t know that nurses wear uniform and we don’t. Although I guess they don’t call the male medical students “nurse”.’
Nevertheless, she and Ms Lonergan and Dr Moultrie are now undoubtedly cheerleaders for the seven women who helped them to arrive where they are today. Hopefully, by the end of this year, more will join them to recognise this debt.
The Edinburgh Seven’s contribution to medicine still reverberates today
- Sophia Jex-Blake, (pictured right) who led the campaign, also helped set up the London School of Medicine for Women. She was awarded the degree of MD at the University of Bern in Switzerland and was able to register with the GMC after qualifying as a Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland. She became the first female doctor to practise in Scotland, setting up in Manor Place in 1878.
- Mary Anderson continued her studies in Paris when it became clear that Edinburgh would not award medical degrees to women. She wrote her doctoral thesis on mitral stenosis and its higher frequency in women than men.
- Edith Pechey went to the University of Berne and passed her medical exams (in German). She practised in Leeds and India and was heavily involved in the movement for women’s suffrage.
- Isabel Thorne was unable to take her degree (the Edinburgh University website says she was ‘thwarted by family commitments’) but became honorary secretary at the London School of Medicine for Women.
- Emily Bovell gained her MD in Paris, sat Irish exams for medical registration, and worked in London before moving to Nice to help alleviate the symptoms of TB.
- Helen Evans married an editor of The Scotsman (which had been a great supporter of the women), had three children, then, as a widow, became a member of the executive committee of the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.
- Matilda Chaplin married, moved to Tokyo where she founded a school of midwifery, then studied at the London School of Medicine for Women. She got her MD from Paris in 1879, sat her final exams at the College of Physicians in Dublin, then set up in private practice.
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