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Blake, Sophia Louisa Jex-free

  • Shirley Roberts

Sophia Louisa Jex- Blake (1840–1912)

by unknown photographer

Blake, Sophia Louisa Jex- (1840–1912), physician and campaigner for women's rights, was born on 21 January 1840 at 3 Croft Place, Hastings, Sussex. She was the youngest of the three surviving children of Thomas Jex-Blake (1790–1868), proctor of Doctors' Commons, and his wife, Maria Emily Cubitt (1800/01–1881); the Cubitt family home was at Honing Hall, Norfolk. Sophia's brother Thomas William Jex-Blake (1832–1915) was headmaster of Rugby School from 1874 to 1887.

Early education and teaching

In 1851 the family moved from Hastings to 13 Sussex Square, Brighton. Sophia attended several private boarding-schools in Sussex and London. Although she knew she had no need to earn her living, at seventeen she was planning a career as a schoolteacher. In 1858–9 she studied at Queen's College in Harley Street, London. This school was founded in 1847 with the support of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution; it provided advanced secondary education for women who intended to work as teachers. Jex-Blake's unusual proficiency in mathematics won for her a position as college tutor in this subject while she was still a student, and she retained this post until 1861. For part of this time in London she shared a house in Nottingham Place with Octavia Hill and her family. In 1862 Jex-Blake spent several months in Edinburgh being taught by private tutors. She also helped Elizabeth Garrett to prepare her application to Edinburgh University for enrolment as a medical student. The two had previously met in London, but during Elizabeth's visit to Edinburgh Jex-Blake learned more about the problems facing women who wished to practise medicine.

The Medical Act of 1858 had established a register that listed the names of Britain's qualified medical practitioners. The recognized qualifications were those awarded by nineteen bodies, including the British universities, the colleges of physicians and surgeons, the Society of Apothecaries of London and the Apothecaries' Hall of Dublin. A foreign qualification was accepted only if it had been obtained before 1858 and the holder was practising in Britain when the act was passed. Elizabeth Blackwell, the USA's first woman doctor, had made a brief working visit to England just in time to meet these requirements. Hers was the only woman's name to appear in the first register, and some observers believed that its inclusion was an error, since the act did not acknowledge the eligibility of women. For this reason Edinburgh University, while not rejecting Elizabeth Garrett's application outright, deferred its decision on the matter indefinitely.

On 21 July 1862 Jex-Blake travelled to Europe. For eight months she filled a temporary vacancy on the teaching staff of the Grand Ducal Institute in Mannheim. Next she planned a visit to the United States of America to observe women's education in that country. She arrived in Boston on 8 June 1865. There she met Dr Lucy Sewall, the resident physician of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. It was to be a lasting friendship. Jex-Blake visited progressive co-educational schools in four states—Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri. She reported her observations in a book entitled A Visit to some American Schools and Colleges which was published in London in 1867.

On her return to Boston Jex-Blake was offered accommodation at the New England Hospital for Women in return for her services as a clerk and nursing assistant. This experience changed the course of her life. She had long been aware that women in her own country, as well as in the United States, often failed to obtain vital medical treatment because they dreaded the insensitive attitudes of many of the male members of the profession; there was undoubtedly an urgent need for women doctors. Furthermore, she now realized that medical practice, rather than teaching, was the occupation best suited to her own ability and interests. Jex-Blake also heard that in September 1865 Elizabeth Garrett had passed the examination conducted by the Society of Apothecaries in London and was now the second woman to have her name on the British register. However, increasing male opposition to the admission of women to the profession caused the society to take steps to prevent this from happening again. In future it would be impossible for a woman to attend some of its lecture courses that were compulsory for examination candidates. Jex-Blake continued to work and study in Boston, but her application to become a student at the Harvard medical school was rejected. In 1868 she moved to New York, where Elizabeth Blackwell was establishing a medical college for women. However, the death of her father in November, shortly after the college opened, compelled Jex-Blake to return home to England.

Attempts to study medicine

Jex-Blake's essay 'Medicine as a profession for women' was included in the book Women's Work and Women's Culture, edited by Josephine Butler, and was published in 1869. In the same year Jex-Blake applied to enter the medical course at Edinburgh University in the hope that its uncertainty about accepting women students had been resolved. The faculty of medicine accepted her application, but it was overruled by the university court on the grounds that she could not attend the men's classes and it would not be practicable to hold separate classes for just one woman. Jex-Blake soon found four other women, all with excellent academic records, who also wished to study medicine. They were permitted to take the matriculation examination and all passed. On 2 November 1869 they signed the matriculation roll, thereby being recorded as the first women medical students of a British university. The house Jex-Blake rented at 15 Buccleuch Place was close to the university and was the meeting place for the group. As their leader her first task was to arrange their lectures for the first term. The university lecturers, who were paid directly by their students, were not compelled to teach women. Those who agreed to do so charged them very high fees because of the small size of their class; without Jex-Blake's help some of the women could not have met the cost. The women all passed the examinations held at the end of their first term, four of them with distinction, but opposition to their presence increased. At the end of the first year two more women joined the group, which then became known as the ‘Edinburgh Seven’.

Edinburgh University's medical students received their clinical training in the wards of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but when the seven applied to attend the infirmary in 1871 a special meeting of the managers was called. Their application was refused for that year. The women's chief opponent was the eminent physician Professor Robert Christison, who believed that the presence of women students would lower the status not only of the university's medical school but of the profession generally. Joseph Lister, the recently appointed professor of surgery, shared this view. Many of the male medical students feared that an influx of women into an already crowded profession would seriously harm their financial prospects; only a few supported the women's cause.

On the afternoon of 18 November 1870 the seven were walking to Surgeons' Hall, Nicholson Street, to take an examination when they encountered a mob of hostile students who shouted abuse and blocked their entry to the hall. They pelted the women with mud and refuse. Then a sympathetic student emerged from the hall; he opened the gate and ushered the women inside. They took their examination and all passed. This incident, known later as ‘the riot at Surgeons' Hall’, was given wide publicity in the national newspapers and won support for the women's cause. Jex-Blake's addresses to public meetings and her frequent letters to the newspapers helped to maintain this interest. Her book Medical Women (1872) outlined women's contribution to medical history. Opponents in the medical profession were also becoming more determined. For two years in succession they excluded women students from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. It was not until 1873 that the women students gained limited access to the infirmary wards, but they were then facing another problem.

In January 1872 the university court had decided that degrees could not be granted to women medical students, even if they completed the course and passed all the examinations. Jex-Blake appealed to the Scottish court of session to have the university court's decision overruled. In July the case was heard by the lord ordinary, Lord Gifford. He declared the university court's decision invalid; he said that women were entitled to receive degrees, just as men were. But the university then appealed to a higher court. Early in 1873 a panel of twelve judges found that the university had never been empowered to accept women students, so the women had no legitimate claim to degrees. They were, in effect, expelled. Jex-Blake's group remained in Edinburgh for another year, gaining experience in the wards of the infirmary. Then in March 1874 she began the next phase of her campaign, in London.

The London School of Medicine for Women

Jex-Blake's first step was to initiate the founding of the London School of Medicine for Women. With the support of friends she was able to rent suitable premises at 30 Henrietta Street, Brunswick Square. Members of the school's provisional council included Professor Thomas Huxley and Ernest Hart, the editor of the British Medical Journal. A number of eminent medical men formed a panel of lecturers. Jex-Blake was the school's secretary, in an unofficial capacity, as she was also one of its students. When the school opened on 12 October 1874 it had fourteen students on its roll, the Edinburgh group having been joined by some newcomers. The future of the school depended on the solution of two problems. First, it had to become affiliated with a major hospital so that its students could receive clinical training. Second, its students required access to examinations that would qualify them for registration by the General Medical Council. A year after the school opened there seemed to be a solution to one of these problems. The Royal College of Surgeons of England offered a licence in midwifery, a qualification that entitled the holder to be registered. Very few men took the examination for the licence, so if women applied they would not seem to be competing with their male colleagues. Jex-Blake and two of her fellow students entered their names as candidates. Senior members of the college could find no legal basis for rejecting their applications. Then, just as the examination was about to be held, the three examiners all resigned and there were no volunteers to replace them. The examination was cancelled for an indefinite period. Two members of parliament, Russell Gurney and James Stansfeld, then gave valuable support to the women's cause. Stansfeld accepted the post of honorary treasurer of the London School of Medicine for Women; he came to know Jex-Blake well. When he and Russell Gurney drafted a private member's bill to enable women to qualify in medicine they relied heavily on information and advice which Jex-Blake gave them.

Russell Gurney's enabling bill was passed by parliament on 11 August 1876. This bill merely stated that all of the nineteen recognized examining bodies were permitted (or enabled) to accept women candidates, but they were not compelled to do so. The supporters of the bill correctly predicted that once the position was clarified some of the examining bodies would admit women. The King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland did so a month later. Meanwhile, Jex-Blake, with the support of James Stansfeld, successfully completed negotiations with the London (afterwards the Royal) Free Hospital in Gray's Inn Road. On 15 March 1877 the hospital and the London School of Medicine for Women became affiliated for the teaching of women students. At last British women had access to comprehensive medical training and to registration.

Jex-Blake was not the first woman to take the examination in Dublin. Knowing that if she failed her opponents would be gratified, she decided to test herself by taking an examination in Switzerland. On 10 January 1877 she obtained the MD at Bern. Four months later she passed the examination in Dublin and was duly registered on 14 May. Jex-Blake had expected that she would now be formally appointed honorary secretary of the London School of Medicine for Women, but members of the school council, including James Stansfeld, thought her unsuited to the position. Her forthright, militant approach was no longer appropriate. Now that the two main problems had been solved the school needed the services of a diplomatic secretary to win the goodwill and respect of the medical profession. Another former student was appointed. Feeling severely hurt Jex-Blake decided to return to Edinburgh, where she still had many friends.

Career after qualification

There, in June 1878, Jex-Blake opened a medical practice at 4 Manor Place; three months later she established a dispensary (an out-patient clinic) for impoverished women. This was at 73 Grove Street, Fountainbridge. Both the practice and the dispensary soon became very busy and for three years she carried a heavy work load. Then the death of her mother early in 1881, followed by the death of one of her assistants, made her severely depressed. She closed her practice and left the dispensary in the care of her medical colleagues. For two years she lived the life of a recluse, but by September 1883 she had recovered. She moved to Bruntsfield Lodge, Whitehouse Loan, and reopened her practice. The dispensary was also moved to a larger site, at 6 Grove Street; with the addition of a ward for in-patients it became the Edinburgh Hospital for Women. Jex-Blake also compiled a second edition of Medical Women, adding an account of the recent victory; it was published in 1886.

In 1885 the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons of Edinburgh established a conjoint board to award joint diplomas in medicine and surgery; women candidates would be accepted. When a group of women students appealed to Jex-Blake for help with their training she responded generously. At considerable personal cost she founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, in Surgeon Square. It opened early in 1887. In its second year the school was disrupted by disputes between Jex-Blake and several of the students who resented her imposition of strict rules of conduct. The rebels succeeded in having another school established—the Medical College for Women, in Chambers Street. Jex-Blake's school eventually closed in 1898.

Over the years Jex-Blake's hospital had continued to grow, as it provided a valuable service to Edinburgh's women. After her retirement in March 1899 the hospital was moved to her former home and was renamed the Bruntsfield Hospital. Jex-Blake spent her retirement in rural Sussex. Her property, Windydene, was a small farm at Mark Cross, some 5 miles south of Tunbridge Wells. Although her heart was failing she enjoyed reading, gardening, and entertaining her many friends, until her death at Windydene on 7 January 1912. She was buried in Rotherfield churchyard, Sussex. One of her close friends, Dr Margaret Todd, later wrote of Sophia Jex-Blake:

She was impulsive, she made mistakes and would do so to the end of her life: her naturally hasty temper and imperious disposition had been chastened indeed, but the chastening fire had been far too fierce to produce perfection … But there was another side to the picture after all. Many of those who regretted and criticised details were yet forced to bow before the big transparent honesty, the fine unflinching consistency of her life.



  • S. Roberts, Sophia Jex-Blake: a woman pioneer in nineteenth century medical reform (1993)
  • M. Todd, The life of Sophia Jex-Blake (1918)
  • S. Jex-Blake, Medical women: a thesis and a history, 2nd edn (1886)
  • S. Jex-Blake, A visit to some American schools and colleges (1867)
  • I. Thorne, Sketch of the foundation and development of the London School of Medicine for Women (1915)
  • Royal Free Hospital, London, archives of the medical school
  • J. Stansfeld, ‘Medical women’, Nineteenth Century, 2 (1877), 888–901
  • The life of Sir Robert Christison, 2 (1886)


  • Edinburgh Central Reference Library
  • Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston
  • Lothian Health Board Medical Archive Centre
  • NL Scot.
  • Royal Free Hospital, London, medical school, letters, application form, and newspaper cuttings
  • U. Edin., faculty of medicine
  • Wellcome L.
  • Women's Library, London




  • S. Laurence, portrait, Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London
  • Swaine, photograph, Wellcome L.
  • photograph, U. Edin.
  • photograph, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  • photograph, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£14,196 3s.: probate, 14 Feb 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
J. Burke, , 4 vols. (1833–8); new edn as , 3 vols. [1843–9] [many later edns]