Pioneering female medics honoured on International Women’s Day

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Seven pioneering female 19th-century doctors have been remembered at a special event on International Women’s Day.

The women – Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell – were admitted to study medicine at Edinburgh University in 1869, making them the first females to be accepted on to a degree programme at any British university.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSED) unveiled a plaque commemorating the medics’ achievements at a ceremony in the city on Thursday.

Caroline Doig, a retired paediatric surgeon and the first woman to be elected to the RCSED council in 1984, unveiled the plaque.

She said: “Today, the college celebrates the role of women in all its committees and activities, and its growing female membership has reached over 5,000 surgical and dental professionals worldwide.

“I am delighted there are now so many women pursuing a career in surgery and is it an honour to unveil this commemorative plaque on International Women’s Day, in memory of the first seven women to be admitted on to a degree programme at any British university.”

A plaque will be unveiled to the 'Edinburgh Seven' (RCSED/PA)
A plaque unveiled to the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ (RCSED/PA)

Although they were admitted in 1869, they had to continue their campaign to be allowed to train and practice as doctors.

A defining moment in the campaign was The Surgeons’ Hall Riot of November 18, 1870, which attracted widespread publicity and created a groundswell of support for their fight.

Information on the University of Edinburgh’s website reveals the challenges faced by women at the time.

The article states: “The men made life as difficult as possible for the Edinburgh Seven, shutting doors in their faces, howling at them and behaving aggressively.

“Events came to a head at their anatomy exam when several hundred male students pelted the women with mud and other objects as they arrived.

“The women struggled through the crowd until a supporter unbolted a door to hurry them inside.

“During the exam, the rioters shoved a live sheep into the hall, causing further chaos.”

The notice was erected as part of Historic Environment Scotland’s commemorative plaque scheme.

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