January 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sophia Jex-Blake

Would you care enough about education to rebel against your parents, struggle against society, and even face riots? Read about someone who did:

Born on this day in 1840, Sophia Jex-Blake was an English doctor and feminist. She was one of the first female doctors in the United Kingdom, and she led a campaign to allow women into med school. She even started two medical schools for women, one in London, England, and the other in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she started a women's hospital.

Jex-Blake had to be a revolutionary her whole life. When she wanted to go to college, her parents objected. She went, anyway, to Queen's College in London. While still a student, she was offered a job as a math tutor. She took the job, but her father refused her permission to accept a salary, so she did the tutoring as a volunteer. Later, Jex-Blake learned how difficult it was for women to attend medical school in the U.K. She went to the United States to learn about women's education there, and she was very influenced by the opportunities women had in the U.S. She decided to attend med school in the U.S., but her father died, and she went back to England to be with her mother.

Jex-Blake couldn't get any universities in England to accept her, but she persuaded Edinburgh University to admit her in 1869. Six other women joined her in the medical studies at Edinburgh. Get this—they cared so much about getting an education, they had to pay for their own separate lectures! Many people supported their efforts, but many opposed them—including lecturers, students, and townspeople. There was even a riot about the women med students in 1870!

There were so many administrative roadblocks to graduation, by 1873 the women had to accept that they couldn't get their medical degrees from Edinburgh. But Jex-Blake persevered. She helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, and she urged Parliament to pass a bill that would enable medical schools to treat women and men equally. She passed the medical exams at the University of Berne (Switzerland) and was awarded an MD in 1877—and then went on to, not just practice medicine, but to work for women's rights to education, women's rights to practice medicine, and women's hospitals.

So, I ask again: Would you care enough about education to rebel against your parents, struggle against society, and even face riots? From our standpoint, Jex-Blake's story is crazy—but we are so lucky that people like her worked so hard to change the world.

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