Today, on International Women’s Day 2018, a plaque was unveiled at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh commemorating the Surgeons’ Hall Riot, which took place in 1870 when a group of female students attempted to sit anatomy exam. To mark the occasion, this guest blog is from crime fiction author and medical historian Elaine Thomson, who completed a PhD on women in medicine in late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Edinburgh.
The first women to have their names put on the medical register in Britain were Elizabeth Blackwell (1858) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1866). Blackwell trained in New York, but the Medical Act of 1858 stipulated that no foreign degree was sufficient to qualify for inclusion on the British Medical Register. Garrett Anderson had qualified as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in London in 1866. Once Garrett Anderson had received her licentiate, however, this route was also speedily closed to women. It was not until the late 1860s, when Sophia Jex-Blake began the battle for the medical education of women at Edinburgh University, that the issue of women’s right to enter the medical profession was fully confronted.
In October of 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake and four other women – Edith Pechey, Isabel Thorne, Matilda Chaplin and Helen Evans – succeeded in matriculating to study medicine at Edinburgh University. A year later they were joined by Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. As events unfolded, the group became known as the Septem contra Edinam, or the ‘Seven against Edinburgh’.
From the outset they faced opposition. Arguments against medical women pointed to the impropriety of having men and women taught together in the same classroom – especially in the anatomy classes and the dissecting rooms. The matter of women’s inferior intellectual ability was also raised. Jex-Blake got round the first issue by persuading the lecturers to teach the women students in separate classes. In the spring examinations all five medical women won prizes in Botany and four of the five were in the honours list for Physiology and Chemistry, thereby dismissing any arguments concerning their lack of ability. Edith Pechey came top of the class in chemistry and should have won the Hope Scholarship, a prize awarded to the student with the highest marks. The scholarship was awarded to a man, who had come second, rather than to Pechey. In addition to this snub, the University also refused to issue certificates of attendance to the women students for those classes which they had passed. The women appealed against both decisions. Although the Senate agreed to issue the certificates, they refused to re-allocate the scholarship. It was the controversy surrounding the Hope Scholarship which marked the beginning of a systematic effort to exclude women from medical education at Edinburgh University.
By early 1870 many of those who had taught the women students in separate classes at the University had, under pressure from colleagues, withdrawn their services. The University, however, was not the only place in the city where they could attend classes in medicine. The extra-mural medical school provided lectures to medical students to prepare them for the licentiate examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians. In July of 1870 all of the extra-mural lecturers agreed to accept women into their classes. By October 1870, having passed all classes offered by the extra-mural school, the women approached the Royal Infirmary for permission to ‘walk the wards’.
The issue of mixed classes once more came to the fore. In the wards of the hospital, it was argued, women would witness the most hideous diseases and illnesses, the sights, sounds and smells of which would shock and offend their delicate sensibilities. As a result, in October 1870, sixteen out of the nineteen members of the medical staff voted against allowing women into the Infirmary for clinical instruction.
The next event in the saga was the ‘riot’ at Surgeon’s Hall. On November 18th 1870, as the medical women attempted to enter Surgeons Hall for an anatomy exam, they were met by “a dense mob filling up the roadway, sufficient to stop all traffic for about an hour.” The gates of the Hall were slammed in the women’s faces by the half-drunken mob of male students, who proceeded to swig whisky from within whilst abusing the women “in the foulest possible language”. Although the women managed to enter the lecture theatre, the mob was still awaiting them when they emerged, to hurl mud and more verbal abuse. In December of 1870 a memorial was submitted to the extra-mural lecturers, signed by 66 students, complaining at the presence of the female students. This petition included the complaint “that the presence of women at the classes of anatomy and surgery, and in the Dissecting room of the College, gives rise to various feelings which tend to distract the attention of the Students from important subjects of study.
The College of Surgeons passed a resolution by 27 votes to 4 against mixed classes.
The remaining months of the year were spent in a legal wrangle with the Infirmary, with the Infirmary electors voting against the admission of women by 100 to 98. Finally, in June of 1873 the Court of Session upheld the University’s appeal against the women’s right to be examined by the medical faculty. There was now no way for the medical women to gain even a part of their degree from the University of Edinburgh. The battle for medical education in Edinburgh, which had lasted for almost four years, was over.
In 1876 the Russell Gurney Enabling Bill was introduced. Once women had obtained their medical degrees from foreign universities, the Enabling Bill made it possible for them to obtain a licentiate from one or other (or both) of the Royal Colleges, thereby allowing them to practise as surgeons or physicians in Britain. In response to this victory, Jex-Blake and a number of the medical women who had studied in Edinburgh gained their MDs in Europe, then returned home to seek the licentiate which would allow them to practise medicine in Britain. The Kings and Queens College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ireland was the first to allow women to sit the necessary exams. In May 1877, eight years after she had first attempted to enter the medical profession, Jex-Blake and four other medical women from Edinburgh had their names put on the medical register.
E.S. Thomson has a PhD from Edinburgh University in the History of Medicine. She writes medical historical crime fiction, and is the author of Beloved Poison and Dark Asylum. Her third novel, The Blood, published by Constable, is out in April.