Sophia Jex-Blake lived from 21 January 1840 to 7 January 1912. She is remembered for launching a campaign to enable women to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh; for being the first female doctor to practice in Scotland; and for leading the way in the provision of education for women wanting to train as doctors. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Sophia Jex-Blake was born in Hastings in England. After attending a number of private schools, in 1858 she enrolled as a student at Queen's College in London, despite her parents' objections. The following year she accepted a post as a mathematics tutor at the college. In the early 1860s Sophia spent some time travelling in the United States, learning about women's education and working as an assistant at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. In 1867 she applied to study medicine at the University of Harvard, but was rejected because she was a woman. Later that year her father died and she returned to England.
In 1869 she published an essay entitled Medicine as a profession for women, which made the case for equal access for women to medical education. In March 1869 she applied for admission to the Medical Faculty of the University of Edinburgh. The University Court rejected her application on the grounds that the University could not make the necessary arrangements "in the interest of one lady". Jex-Blake responded by placing newspaper adverts for women who might wish to apply alongside her, and later in 1869 applications were made by a group who became known as the "Edinburgh Seven" for admission. This time the University Court approved their applications. The Edinburgh Seven became the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university.
The seven women quickly proved they could work as hard and achieve at least as much as their male counterparts, and hostility began to grow towards them from male students and lecturers. This culminated in the Surgeons' Hall riot on 18 November 1870, when over 200 angry men physically prevented the women sitting an anatomy exam. The resultant publicity raised the profile of women's education and provoked widespread debate. But the University of Edinburgh backed down to the more immediate pressure and refused to allow the seven women to graduate. This was challenged, and culminated in a court case in 1873, which the university won.
In 1874 Jex-Blake helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women. This opened in the autumn of that year, with twelve of its fourteen students having previously studied in Edinburgh. In January 1877 Jex-Blake was awarded her M.D. by the University of Berne. In May 1877 she qualified as Licentiate of the King's and Queen's College of Physicians of Ireland, which allowed her to become only the third woman to register as a doctor with the General Medical Council.
Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh, where she set up a medical practice in June 1878. In 1886 she established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. Among her notable early students were Elsie Inglis, and Margaret Todd, with whom she formed a close personal relationship that would last the rest of her life. The school was damaged by a court case in 1889 which resulted from Jex-Blake's management style, and then rendered effectively redundant in 1892, when the University of Edinburgh finally opened its doors fully to female students.
Jex-Blake retired in 1899, and moved with Margaret Todd to Sussex. Jex-Blake's practice in Edinburgh became Bruntsfield Hospital, which remained open until 1989. Both the University of Edinburgh and Historic Environment Scotland have unveiled plaques which celebrate her early struggle for medical education for women. A detailed biography was written by Margaret Todd after Jex-Blake's death and published as "The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake".