Sophia Jex-Blake

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Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake
Portrait by Samuel Laurence 1865
Born (1840-01-21)21 January 1840
Hastings, Sussex, England
Died 7 January 1912(1912-01-07) (aged 71)
Mark Cross, Rotherfield, Sussex, England
Medical career
Profession Physician and teacher

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (21 January 1840 – 7 January 1912) was an English physician, teacher and feminist.[1] 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 (at a time when no other medical schools were training women) and in Edinburgh, where she also started a women's hospital.

Early life[edit]

A plaque commemorating the birthplace of Sophia Jex-Blake
A plaque commemorating the birthplace of Sophia Jex-Blake.

Sophia Jex-Blake was born at 3 Croft Place Hastings, England on 21 January 1840, daughter of retired lawyer Thomas Jex-Blake, a proctor of Doctors' Commons, and Mary Jex-Blake née Cubitt.[2] Her brother was Thomas Jex-Blake, future Dean of Wells Cathedral. She attended various private schools in southern England and in 1858 enrolled at Queen's College, 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.[3][4]

Medical career[edit]

Jex Blake 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 of Edinburgh Medical School. Garrett supported her in this frustrating effort, learning about the difficulties arising for aspiring women doctors from the provisions of the Medical Act 1858, before leaving to teach in Mannheim, Germany in 1862.

United States[edit]

The following month 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[5] 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 Medical School 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";[6] she always thought her role as a female physician was to treat women and their children.

Struggling to become a doctor[edit]

Six other women joined Sophia Jex-Blake in Edinburgh – the first group of female medical undergraduates at a British university, the Edinburgh Seven – though they had to fund their own segregated lectures. Despite having many supporters, they also encountered much opposition from lecturers, students and townspeople. In the admission period of autumn 1870 Patrick Heron Watson was the first lecturer to permit women into his classes, and stood virtually alone in this role.[7] 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. In a letter to The Times her friend Isabel Thorne wrote that was because of time spent arguing the female students' cause.[8] However, Jex-Blake also writing in the Times said that her failure was the result of unfair treatment by the exam board.[9] Despite this set back 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. Soon came the UK Medical Act of 1876 (39 and 40 Vict, Ch. 41), an act which repealed the previous Medical Act in the United Kingdom and allowed all British medical authorities to license all qualified applicants whatever their gender.[10][11][12] The first organisation to take advantage of this 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.

Later career[edit]

Bruntsfield Hospital, now converted to private apartments, 2010

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

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.[13] Women were allowed admission to Scottish universities in 1892.

Personal life[edit]

Despite a nineteen-year age difference, with Jex-Blake being the elder, Jex-Blake was the romantic partner of Dr Margaret Todd. Upon Jex-Blake's retirement in 1899, they moved to Windydene, Mark Cross, Rotherfield, where Dr Todd wrote The Way of Escape in 1902 and Growth in 1906.

Her home became a meeting place for former students and colleagues, and she welcomed writers and acquaintances from the world over. [14]

Death and commemoration[edit]

Jex-Blake died at Windydene on 7 January 1912 and is buried at Rotherfield. Todd subsequently wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake.[15] Edinburgh University commemorates Sophia Jex-Blake with a plaque (by Pilkington Jackson) near the entrance to its medical school, honouring her as "Physician, pioneer of medical education for women in Britain, alumna of the University".


  • 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

Selected writings[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 available at the Internet Archive.
  • Esther Pohl Lovejoy, Women Doctors of the World (Macmillan 1957)


  1. ^ "Jex-Blake, Sophia". Who's Who, 59: pp. 938–939. 1907. 
  2. ^ Shirley Roberts, ‘Blake, Sophia Louisa Jex- (1840–1912)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 11 Nov 2008
  3. ^ Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (Macmillan, 1918)
  4. ^ According to Virginia Woolf, this was a "typical instance of the great Victorian fight ... of the daughters against the fathers" where a father would hope to keep a daughter in his power by saying earning a living was "beneath her". See chapter 3 of Three Guineas (1938)
  5. ^ S. Roberts, Dictionary of National Biography
  6. ^ Quoted by Furst, Lilian R. (1999). Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long Hill. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Isabel Thorne said her friend's failure was due to her "unselfish devotion to the interests of her fellow students" in a letter to The Times
  9. ^ The Times 20 June 1874
  10. ^ British Medical Journal. British Medical Association. 1908. pp. 1079–. 
  11. ^ John A. Wagner Ph.D. (25 February 2014). Voices of Victorian England: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life. ABC-CLIO. pp. 211–. ISBN 978-0-313-38689-3. 
  12. ^ Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons (1892). Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command. H.M. Stationery Office. pp. 40–. 
  13. ^ Lutzker, Edythe (1969). Womain Gain a Place in Medicine. New York: McGraw Hill. p. 149. 
  14. ^ Lutzker, Edythe (1969). Womain Gain a Place in Medicine. New York: McGraw Hill. p. 149. 
  15. ^ Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (Macmillan, 1918)

External links[edit]

"Wikisource link to Miscellany#Prof. Huxley on Female Education" Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 Wikisource October 1874 ISSN 0161-7370