Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Jex-Blake, Sophia Louisa

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JEX-BLAKE, SOPHIA LOUISA (1840–1912), physician, born at Hastings 21 January 1840, was the youngest daughter of Thomas Jex-Blake, of Bunwell, Norfolk, and Brighton, proctor of Doctors' Commons, by his wife, Maria Emily, youngest daughter of Thomas Cubitt, J.P., of Honing Hall, Norfolk. She was sister of Thomas William Jex-Blake [q.v.], head master of Rugby and dean of Wells. In 1858 she entered Queen's College for Women, London, as a student, and became mathematical tutor there (1859–1861). After various educational experiments she went in 1865 to the United States and worked in Boston under Dr. Lucy Sewall, with whom she formed a lifelong friendship and from whom she gained a deep conviction of the ‘incalculable blessings’ conferred on her own sex by a woman physician. In 1868 she began a regular course of medical study in New York under Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell [q.v.]. Recalled to England in 1868 by the death of her father, she began to seek for medical education at home. All avenues to the profession seemed to be closed, both by the Medical Act of 1858, which excluded from the register foreign qualifications, and by the unwillingness of medical authorities at home to teach or to examine women. After being refused by the university of London, she turned to Edinburgh, where, though her first application was refused, a second was successful. Regulations were made for the admission of women and for their instruction ‘for the profession of medicine’ in separate classes.

From this point Sophia Jex-Blake became virtually the leader of the movement to open the medical profession to all, without distinction of sex. Five women matriculated at Edinburgh in 1869 and for three sessions carried on their medical studies, though under increasing difficulties. These difficulties came to a head in 1872, and an appeal to the university court only brought the suggestion that the women students should give up their claim to graduation (the only legal passport to practice), and should receive informal ‘certificates of proficiency’. Finally, the matriculated women students, seven in all, brought an action against the university in the court of Session, claiming that the university was legally bound to enable them to complete their studies. Judgment in their favour was reversed on appeal (1873), chiefly on the ground that in admitting women to matriculation the university had acted ultra vires.

The failure seemed complete, yet it is clear that the struggle had been of great value in forming public opinion. Quite undaunted, Sophia Jex-Blake attacked at their base the twin difficulties of instruction and of legal qualification. Having secured Dr. Arthur Trehern Norton as dean, and a staff of recognized lecturers, she founded the London School of Medicine for Women, which opened in October 1874 on its present site in Hunter Street (formerly Henrietta Street). Clinical work was not secured till 1877, when the London (afterwards the Royal) Free Hospital opened its doors to women students. The legal question was ventilated in parliament from 1873 onwards, Sophia Jex-Blake, as the moving spirit behind the scenes, constantly supplying facts, arguments, and even, at the request of Mr. Cowper-Temple (afterwards Baron Mount-Temple), a draft Bill. Meanwhile her last attempt to qualify under existing conditions, through the licence in midwifery of the College of Surgeons, registrable for general practice, was foiled by the resignation of the examiners en masse (1876). This probably hastened parliamentary action, and in August 1876 the Russell Gurney Enabling Act became law. All medical examining bodies were now empowered to examine women, and through the Irish College of Physicians, the first to use the power, Sophia Jex-Blake, already an M.D. of Berne, at length gained a legal title to practise in Great Britain (1877).

In 1878 Sophia Jex-Blake settled in Edinburgh. There, in addition to private and dispensary practice, she founded a women's hospital in 1885, and in the next year a school of medicine for women which continued for more than ten years. In 1894, when the university of Edinburgh admitted women to graduation in medicine, the last of the barriers against which she had launched herself in 1869 was down. Able, energetic, determined, a born combatant and leader, she had been an unselfish and generous protagonist in the cause. In 1899 she gave up active work and retired to Rotherfield in Sussex, where she died on 7 January 1912. Her portrait by Samuel Lawrence (1865) hangs in the rooms of the Royal Society of Medicine.

[Sophia Jex-Blake, Medical Women, 1872, 2nd edition, 1886; Margaret Todd, Life of Sophia Jex-Blake, 1918; personal knowledge.]

K. J-B.