Biography, Event, Source, Women's History

A Woman is a Person! Sophia Jex-Blake’s Historical Struggle

Discovery in archives sheds new light on Jex-Blake’s campaign for medical education for women
Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, c. 1860.

It has been known that Sophia Jex-Blake and her supporters, in their quest to open up University medical education for women, had written to the Senatus Academicus at St Andrews in an attempt to gain admittance to classes there, but the documentary evidence was not apparently extant.

While searching the Senatus papers for information about the University’s higher certificate for women, I was astounded to come across what must be the very letter Jex-Blake wrote, so far unlisted. It was dated 17 July 1873 and signed by herself and 10 other ladies: Edith Pechey, A.R. Barker, Alice J.S. Ker, Elizabeth J. Walker, Agnes McLaren, Isa Foggo, Jane R. Robison, Elizabeth Vinson, Jane Massingberd-Mundy – all who are also known to have been prominent in the movement for female higher education and several in the female suffrage campaign.

Box D of St Andrews archive UYUY459: four bundles of documents relating to the Senatus Academicus, where the letter from Jex-Blake was found.

The letter takes the form of a petition with several submissions amongst which is the interesting argument:

“The most general objection to the admission of women to Universities lies in the supposed difficulty of educating them jointly with male students of medicine.” This argument, she writes, may be applicable to “every university in the kingdom except that of St Andrews” where there are no male students of medicine .


the full letter (UYUY459/Box D/Bundle 1871-73) is available above

Apparently ‘at least fifteen ladies would at once avail themselves of the permission, if given, to matriculate at the University of St Andrews’. The women also offered to hire or build suitable premises for a medical school and to arrange for lectures to be delivered in the subjects not already covered in the curriculum at St Andrews.

Jex-Blake’s campaign had just suffered a setback in an attempt to graduate in the University of Edinburgh. However, although there was considerable sympathy amongst members of the Senatus at St Andrews, its response was to refer back to the case of Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson) whose attempt to be admitted in November 1862 had been rejected on the basis of a ruling by the Solicitor General for Scotland. The upshot was a second rejection for the women in the short term, but a longer term commitment by St Andrews to female higher education. The Senatus immediately proposed the establishment of a sub-committee to investigate the issue. An eventual outcome of this episode and the deliberations of the committee was the establishment of the Lady Literate in Arts, the university’s innovative programme for a specifically female degree level certificate which lasted from 1877 until the 1930s.

The Senatus Academicus Room, South Street, St Andrews c. 1890 by John Fairweather (from the St Andrews Photographic Collection, StAU-SR-1).

Most of the signatories of 1873 letter did eventually succeed in practising as doctors by qualifying outside the United Kingdom and Jex-Blake herself went on to resolve her difficulties by setting up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1886. Clearly, too, she did not bear a grudge because in 1893 she wrote to propose an affiliation between her School of Medicine and St Andrews. This document appears to be missing – perhaps further research will happily unearth this also.

Lis Smith

Doctoral Candidate, Institute of Scottish Historical Research

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