Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake

Born 21 January 1840, died 7 January 1912

Sophia Jex-Blake was the daughter of Maria Cubitt, and Thomas Jex-Blake, retired barrister. Described as ‘excessively clever’, she was unhappy with the lack of educational opportunities available to her as a woman.

She studied at Queen’s College, London, from 1858, qualifying as a teacher and giving her services free to organisations providing education to poor women and children. In 1862, she took a temporary post in Mannheim, Germany, but was unhappy there.

During a visit to America in 1865 she decided to study medicine. Refused entry to Harvard because she was a woman, she enrolled at the Women’s Medical College, New York, in March 1868, but her father died soon afterwards and she returned to Britain. She applied to the University of Edinburgh and was refused entry because she was the only female applicant.

She then gathered together four other women, who all passed the matriculation examination and were admitted to the medical school in November. Two more women joined the following year.

Many of the male students reacted in the form of violent demonstrations and the professors of the university effectively barred the women from classes and refused to allow them to graduate. Sophia Jex-Blake brought an action against the university to force it to allow graduation, but the decision was upheld in 1873, bringing to a halt the pioneering campaign at Edinburgh.

Jex-Blake was instrumental in setting up the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. She passed the medical degree examination in January 1877 at Berne University, Switzerland, obtaining her licence to practise in May.

Returning to Edinburgh in the 1880s, she practised privately and founded the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children (later the Bruntsfield Hospital).

In 1886, she founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, where she taught, also lecturing in midwifery at the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges. She supported the Russell Gurney Enabling Bill (1876), which allowed medical examination boards to admit women as candidates – an essential step in the registration process.

She retired to Sussex in 1895, with her friend and colleague Margaret Todd (1859–1918), a Scot who had graduated in 1894 from the Edinburgh School and who later wrote a biography of Jex-Blake.

Sophia Jex-Blake provoked strong reactions among her contemporaries: she was described by Louisa Martindale as ‘brilliant, hot-tempered and resourceful’ and by Elizabeth Blackwell as ‘a dangerous woman from her power and want of tact’. However, her tenacity was undoubtedly crucial in the campaign to gain a place for women in medicine.

The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women
Based on an entry by Nicki Scott