Jex-Blake, Sophia, 1840-1912, English physician, active in opening the medical profession to women in England. A graduate of Queen's College, London, she began (1866) her medical studies in the United States and continued them in Edinburgh, but she met much opposition there and was unable to obtain a degree. She carried the battle to Parliament, which finally passed a law enabling the medical schools to give degrees to women. Jex-Blake was influential in founding medical schools for women in London and Edinburgh.

See her Medical Women (1886, repr. 1970); biography by M. Todd (1918).

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (21 January, 18407 January, 1912) was an English physician, teacher and feminist. She was one of the first female doctors in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a leading campaigner for medical education for women and was involved in founding two medical schools for women, in London and in Edinburgh, where she also started a women's hospital.

Early career

Sophia Jex-Blake was born in Hastings, England on 21 January, 1840, daughter of retired lawyer Thomas Jex-Blake and Mary Jex-Blake née Cubitt. She attended various private schools in southern England and in 1858 enrolled at Queen's College, a normal school for women in London, despite her parents' objections. In 1859, while still a student, she was offered a post as mathematics tutor at the college where she stayed until 1861, living for some of that time with Octavia Hill's family. She worked without pay: her family did not expect their daughter to earn a living, and indeed her father refused her permission to accept a salary.

Next, she spent a few months studying with private tutors in Edinburgh. Elizabeth Garrett, whom Jex-Blake had met in London, was there applying to the university medical school. Jex-Blake supported her in this frustrating effort, learning about the difficulties arising for aspiring women doctors from the provisions of the Medical Act of 1858, before leaving to teach in Mannheim,Germany in 1862.

United States

The following year Sophia Jex-Blake travelled to the United States to learn more about women's education. She visited various schools, was strongly influenced by developments in co-education in the USA and later published A Visit to Some American Schools and Colleges. At the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston she met one of the country's pioneer female physicians, Lucy Sewell, who became an important friend, and she worked there for a time as an assistant. This was a turning point for Jex-Blake who then decided to train to become a doctor.

She applied to Harvard in 1867 along with Susan Dimock, a trainee from the New England Hospital, but was rejected. The following year she hoped to attend a new medical college being established by Elizabeth Blackwell in New York, but in the same year her father died and she returned to England to be with her mother. She found no English medical school which would accept women students, but persuaded Edinburgh University to admit her in 1869. In this year her essay Medicine as a profession for women appeared in a book edited by Josephine Butler: Women's Work and Women's Culture. Here Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake argued that women doctors were required for "those of their own sex who need them; she always thought her role as a female physician was to treat women and their children.

Struggling to become a doctor

Six other women joined Sophia Jex-Blake in Edinburgh – the first group of female medical undergraduates at a British university – though they had to fund their own segregated lectures. Despite having many supporters, they also encountered much opposition from lecturers, students and townspeople. In November 1870 there was even a "riot", but procedural and legal opposition was a more serious problem, and in 1873 the handful of women students had to accept that there was no possibility of obtaining a degree from Edinburgh.

Jex-Blake failed her final exams, perhaps because of time spent arguing the female students' cause, but she had by no means given up her plans. Not only did she help establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, but she also continued campaigning and studying. A supportive MP, Russell Gurney, put forward an "enabling bill" which was passed by Parliament in August enabling, though not compelling, medical examining bodies to treat women candidates as they treated men. The first organisation to take advantage of the new legislation was the College of Physicians of Ireland, but before Jex-Blake applied to them, she passed the medical exams at the University of Berne where she was awarded an MD in January 1877. Four months later she had further success in Dublin and qualified as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland (LKQCPI) meaning she could at last be registered with the General Medical Council, the third registered woman doctor in the country.


At the London School Jex-Blake's hopes of playing a leading role as Secretary were overturned when Isabel Thorne was chosen as a more suitable, and diplomatic, person for that role. Sophia Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh, established a private practice, and, a few months later, a dispensary for poorer patients. After the addition of in-patient facilities, this eventually became the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women, established in Jex-Blake's Bruntsfield home after her retirement.

After her mother's death in 1881, Sophia Jex-Blake had a period of depressed reclusiveness, but in 1886 set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. Women were allowed admission to Scottish universities in 1892.

After retiring in 1899, Jex-Blake moved to Mark Cross, near Tunbridge Wells, where she died on 7 January 1912. She was buried at Rotherfield. Edinburgh University now commemorates Sophia Jex-Blake with a plaque near the entrance to its medical school, honouring her as "Physician, pioneer of medical education for women in Britain, alumna of the University".

Selected writings


  • Thomas William Jex-Blake (1832–1915), brother, headmaster of Rugby School from 1874 to 1887
  • Katharine Jex-Blake, niece, Mistress of Girton College from 1916 to 1922
  • Henrietta Jex-Blake, niece, principal of Lady Margaret Hall from 1909 to 1921

See also


Further reading

  • Maggie Allen and Michael Elder, The walls of Jericho – a novel based on the life of Sophia Jex-Blake, derived from a BBC serial (BBC, 1981) ISBN 0-563-17929-5
  • Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Women in Science: Antiquity through Nineteenth Century A Biographical Dictionary (MIT 1990)
  • Shirley Roberts, Sophia Jex-Blake (Routledge 1993)
  • Shirley Roberts, Sophia Jex-Blake in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (1918) - A scanned copy is at this site

External links

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