19th October 1869

The Edinburgh Seven matriculate

Women were for a long time denied the educational privileges enjoyed by their male counterparts. The first sign that this might one day not be the case came in 1869 with the enrolment of seven women at the University of Edinburgh. It was the first university in Britain to do so.

University reluctance

The first to apply was Sophia Jex-Blake, but she was rejected on the grounds that making the changes required to accommodate just one female student was too costly.

Undeterred, she advertised for other women who would join her. This would not only make the university’s efforts more ‘worthwhile’, but also neatly counter their argument. When she had signed up six other women, the university agreed that they could sit the matriculation exam that would determine their eligibility to study medicine at the institution.

Accommodations made

Although the women couldn’t enrol until November, with the rest of the student body, the fact that the university had made the necessary provisions to accommodate them had been trumpeted in August, even before they sat their entrance exam.

“There is, at last, a University in Great Britain where women may study medicine and take degrees entitling them to practice,” the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette of 7 August 1869 quoted from the Spectator. “The University of Edinburgh has the credit of taking the lead in the reform, and has made it complete by authorising the establishment of separate classes for female medical students, an arrangement not found necessary either in France or America, but agreeable to British habits. This great concession is due, we believe, mainly to the energy of Miss S Jex-Blake, who refused to be driven out of Great Britain to pursue her studies and, after suffering defeat upon defeat, at last persuaded the Senate of the Edinburgh University that women, having bodies, ought to be permitted to know a little about them, and use that knowledge for the benefit of others.”

Professors vote

The university’s professors met at the end of the month and held a definitive vote on the women’s enrolment, which was passed in their favour. However, not everyone approved of such modern thinking, and the women were frequently subjected to abuse.

In November 1870, they were due at the Surgeon’s Hall for an anatomy exam, but found their way blocked by a large crowd, which wouldn’t permit them to enter the building. They did eventually get in, and sat the exam, but when they left a riot broke out – now known as the Surgeon’s Hall Riot – and the women had to be escorted back to their lodgings by fellow (male) students to ensure their own safety.

Later in life, Sophia Jex-Blake developed a friendship, possibly romantic, with the author Margaret Todd, who wrote under the name Graham Travers, and whose last work was Jex-Blake’s biography.



Other events that occured in October

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