Edinburgh University admitted the Edinburgh Seven to the study of medicine on the 12th of November, 1869.
Those students of politics, terrorism and Irish emancipation will have heard of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven, whereas rugby fans will know of the Melrose Sevens and not many will be aware of the Venlo Seven, of which we may forget. However, a far more significant and important 'seven' were the Edinburgh Seven of 1869. Back in the 19th Century, upper and middle class women were not expected to enter the 'professions' and earn their own living. The female variety of common peasants were, of course, except that what they earned didn't give them much of a living. Life wasn't too much better for their male counterparts who had, in the earlier part of the Century, only just ceased to be fodder for Bonaparte’s cannon. Come to think of it, poor children didn't have it so good either; with boys forced to climb chimneys and drown in pools.
The thing about those middle and upper class women for which we can be thankful is their inherited sense of superiority and stubbornness for it is those sorts of traits, evident in a select band of pioneers, which led to the overturning of a situation prevailing where it was virtually impossible for women to become doctors, engineers, architects, accountants or bankers. By the end of the Century, after a long struggle had broken the taboos, there were (only) two hundred women doctors.
The first Scottish woman doctor was Elsie Inglis, but she had to thank several English women for having paved her way. The first of those was Elizabeth Blackwell, who emigrated with her family to the United States in 1832. On the 11th of January in 1849, Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent (not 'indignant') Women and Children and trained women to become Union Army nurses during the Civil War. Blackwell returned to England in 1853 and, on the 1st of January, 1859, under a clause in the Medical Act of 1858, which recognised doctors having gained foreign degrees prior to its date, she became the first woman on the General Medical Council's Medical Register. Together with Florence Nightingale, of whom you will have heard, Blackwell was responsible for opening the Women's Medical College and she was also the co-founder of the London School of Medicine for Women.
Next up came Elizabeth Garrett (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson), who was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain and the second woman to have her name entered on the Medical Register. Garrett was refused entry to study at Middlesex Hospital, but finally was able to study anatomy, privately, demurely and discretely, at the Royal London Hospital, with the more enlightened Professors at the University of St Andrews, and at the Edinburgh Extra-mural School. Garrett gained her diploma, but London University, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, and other stuffy bodies refused to admit her to their examinations. Eventually, the Society of Apothecaries allowed her to enter for the Licence of Apothecaries' Hall, which she obtained in 1865.
Four years later, in 1869, the Edinburgh Seven hit the headlines, at least in The Scotsman newspaper. The ring leader of this 'seven' was Sophia Jex-Blake who had earlier spent a few months studying with private tutors in Edinburgh, sometime between 1861 and 1862, when and where she met Elizabeth Garrett. Later, Jex-Blake went to the United States and in 1868, after having decided to train to become a doctor and enrol in Elizabeth Blackwell's medical college in New York, she instead returned to England due to the death of her father. Having found no English medical school which would accept women students, Jex-Blake once more went north to Edinburgh and its university.
In Edinburgh, the University's governing body supported the Dean of the Medical Faculty in denying attendance to Jex-Blake as it it couldn't stomach the idea of mixed classes and certainly wasn't going to fund individual classes for one English 'battleaxe'. Not to be denied, Jex-Blake then advertised for women to join her, with the aim of funding their own, segregated lectures. Jex-Blake's first cadre consisted of Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Edith Pechey and Isobel Thorne, soon to be joined in matriculation by Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Those seven would be “doctresses” also described in Charles Reade's 1877 novel, 'A Woman-Hater', as “seven wise virgins of a half-civilized nation”, became the first women medical students at any United Kingdom university.
Having got that far, you'd think all would become plain sailing, however, the women were not allowed to graduate, despite having passed their exams and significantly, having deposited their fees in the University's coffers. In 1873, they lost a challenge in the Court of Session, which upheld the University's decision not to award them degrees as 'regulations' prevented them from serving on wards. To rub salt into wounds, the Court also ruled, by a majority, that the women should not have been admitted in the first place.
The 'cause' found support in organisations such as the General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women, but Jex-Blake moved back to London, where she later helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with Blackwell. That school opened in autumn 1874, with twelve of its fourteen students, including six of the Edinburgh Seven, having previously studied in Edinburgh. Apart from Jex-Blake, who was granted an M.D. by the Dublin College of Physicians, five of the original 'seven' gained M.Ds., from either Bern or Paris, in the early 1870s (the others were Bovell, Chaplin, Marshall and Pechey).
In 1876, new legislation enabled, albeit it did not compel, examining bodies to treat male and female candidates equally. In 1878, London became the first university in the United Kingdom to admit women to its degrees. In 1880, four women passed the B.A. examination and in 1881, two women obtained a B.Sc. By 1895, over 10 percent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 percent. In the same year as London's landmark, 1878, Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh, where she installed herself at Manor Place in the New Town as the City's first woman doctor. Once Scotland had seen the light and started licensing women doctors, Jex-Blake helped found the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, in 1886, where Elsie Inglis and Jessie Macgregor became students. Edinburgh University continued to resist and it wasn't until 1892, that it began to admit women undergraduates, after the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1889 established a legal framework.