The Edinburgh Seven

When I’m doing research for the Mallory books, I’m always delighted to find a piece of history that takes place at the same time as the novels, which means I need to work it in. The Edinburgh Seven is one of those things.

In March of 1869, two months before I arrived, Sophia Jex-Blake applied to study medicine. The academic board admitted her, only for the university court to reject her with the excuse that they couldn’t make accommodations for just one female student. So she found six more. They became the Edinburgh Seven. They requested and received permission to write the admission exams. Over a hundred and fifty people wrote that exam, including five of the Seven. Four of the women scored in the top seven overall.

A few weeks ago, they signed the matriculation roll, and the University of Edinburgh became the first British university to admit women.

When the Seven graduated, they still couldn’t become doctors. Five of the seven moved abroad (including to the US) where they could become MDs. However, Sophia Jex-Blake returned in 1878 and became Edinburgh’s first female doctor. She continued to push for the Royal College to grant MDs to women, which it began doing in 1885.

So how did male students treat the Seven during their initial studies?

One part of the story I do remember involves a point still in their future, when during their final exams, male students will do everything in their power to help and support them. No, that’s the story my happily-ever-after-loving soul wants, where the young men rise up against their narrow-minded elders to help their fellow students. That is not what happens.

Those male classmates will try to keep the women from finishing their exams by making as much of a ruckus as possible outside, including throwing a sheep—yes, a live sheep—into the room. It won’t stop the Edinburgh Seven, so it’s still a happy ending, but I’d prefer one where the male students don’t go down in history as frat-boy assholes. 

Here’s the more complete version of the Surgeon Hall Riot. In fall 1870, as the women headed into an anatomy exam, the were met by a throng of hundreds who threw garbage and insults at them until one of the male students opened the door to let them in. After the exam, they were offered a chance to slip out the side. They did not.

Now, again, while we can see how they were treated by many of the male students, there are always others who see the injustice, and after the riot, supportive male students escorted them to and from classes for weeks.

When I’m dealing with historical people, I’m extra careful. In Disturbing the Dead, the character of Florence King—allegedly one of the Seven—is fictional. The only one we meet is the leader, Sophia Jex-Blake, and only briefly.

So let’s take a moment to name the actual Seven and applaud their bravery in the pursuit of something women in the West can now take for granted—the pursuit of higher education.

  • Sophia Jex-Blake
  • Isabel Thorne
  • Edith Pechey
  • Matilda Chaplin
  • Helen Evans
  • Mary Anderson
  • Emily Bovell

If you’re interested in the life of Sophia Jex-Blake, her life partner (Dr. Margaret Todd) wrote a book called, simply, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake, available freely via Google Books. Yes, Jex-Blake was also a lesbian, which is not mentioned in Disturbing the Dead, only because there was no way for Mallory to know it. As an author, every time I find a fascinating tidbit, I need to consider whether I can naturally include it in the books. Sometimes, I can’t, so you’ll get it in asides like this.

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