The Edinburgh Seven were the first group of women medical students at a university in the United Kingdom. They fought to study medicine at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and to be allowed to graduate. In 1869 they were allowed to attend specially-arranged classes, but in 1873 they lost a legal challenge against the University after it had decided they could not be awarded degrees. The group may also be called Septem contra Edinam (Seven against Edinburgh).
Although university education for British women was barely possible in 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake was granted permission to attend lectures at the Edinburgh medical school. At first, the university's governing body upheld this decision by the Dean of the Medical Faculty, but there was strong opposition, and it was later decided that there could be neither mixed classes nor individual tuition "in the interest of one lady". Jex-Blake advertised for women to join her, realising they would have to fund their own segregated tuition. The first four to respond were:
Thorne and Chaplin had already studied midwifery in London, while Pechey had tried to qualify with the Society of Apothecaries, but been thwarted. The five were allowed to matriculate at Edinburgh in October 1869 and begin their studies.
They soon became seven with the arrival of:
- Mary Anderson
- Emily Bovell
Doctors, professors and the public had strong feelings about the women's medical education, about whether they should be allowed practical experience in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and whether they should be eligible for degrees. The debate spilled over from the pages of The Times and The Scotsman onto the streets one November afternoon in 1870. A crowd of hundreds gathered near Surgeons' Hall where the women were to take an anatomy examination. They were heckled and had rubbish thrown at them, but Jex-Blake refused to slip away afterwards by a side door. This incident has become known as the "Surgeons' Hall Riot". Later, the Sheriff fined three "disorderly" students £1 each for "breach of the peace". Jex-Blake said the young men had been encouraged by a teaching assistant, but lost when he sued her for defamation.
Other women had joined their classes, some doctors had taught them gladly, and supporters had formed a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Yet in the end they lost the battle to graduate. In 1873 the Court of Session supported the University's right to refuse the women degrees. They also ruled, by a majority, that the women should not have been admitted in the first place. This defeat and their other struggles motivated most of them to continue, not only for personal reasons, but as part of a wider cause.
Sophia Jex-Blake soon moved to London to campaign there. She was active in establishing the London School of Medicine for Women, which opened in autumn 1874 with twelve of its fourteen students having previously studied in Edinburgh. Six of the original "Seven" attended the School. Isabel Thorne was an asset to its smooth running since she was more diplomatic than Jex-Blake. She became the honorary secretary of the School, but gave up her own plan to practise as a doctor.
Five of the original seven - Bovell, Chaplin, Jex-Blake, Marshall, Pechey - were granted MDs abroad in the later 1870s, either in Bern or Paris. In 1876 new legislation enabled, but did not compel, examining bodies to treat candidates of both sexes equally. The Irish College of Physicians was the first to start granting medical practice licences to women: an opportunity for four of the newly-qualified women.
In 1878 Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh and set up at Manor Place in the New Town as the city's first woman doctor. She also established a clinic for poor patients which was the forerunner of Bruntsfield Hospital. Once Scotland started licensing women doctors, Jex-Blake helped found the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, with clinical practice taking place at Leith Hospital. Edith Pechey practised in Leeds before becoming senior medical officer at the new Cama women and children's hospital in Bombay (now Mumbai). Bovell and Marshall worked at the New Hospital for Women in London. Chaplin founded a midwifery school in Tokyo, but later returned to private practice in London.
Edinburgh University and the other Scottish universities eventually admitted women undergraduates in 1892 after the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1889 established a legal framework for this. All classes were co-educational except for medical classes.
In Charles Reade's novel, A Woman-Hater (1877), Rhoda Gould tells the story of the Edinburgh Seven in some detail, as if she had been one of them: "We were seven ladies, who wished to be doctresses, especially devoted to our own sex . . .". While the 'woman-hating' character of Vizard has to be persuaded of Rhoda's potential to do good, Reade's own attitude is sympathetic: " . . . it matters greatly to mankind whether the whole race of women are to be allowed to study medicine and practice it".
- Elston, M.A. The Edinburgh Seven in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006)
- Roberts, S. Sophia Jex-Blake: a woman pioneer in nineteenth century medical reform (1993)
- Ross, Margaret The Royal Medical Society and Medical Women
- The Scotsman archives
- The Female Students at Surgeons' Hall in The Scotsman (23 Nov 1870)
- Scottish Law Reporter (1873)
- Charles Reade, A Woman-Hater (1877), Chapter XIII
- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had studied alone a few years earlier.
- There were a few limited opportunities for British women to study at university level but they were not granted degrees. In 1878 the University of London was the first UK university to offer women the chance of a degree. History of the University of London.
- Scottish Law Reporter 27 June 1873
- The Scotsman 23 Nov 1870
- Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women
- Elsie Inglis
- Louisa Stevenson
- Elizabeth Blackwell
- Emily Blackwell
- Maria Zakrzewska
- Constance Ellis