THIS week sees the 150th anniversary of an event which, depending on how you view it, was either the University of Edinburgh’s finest hour, or its worst. Most people would say the latter, but let me tell you the story of the Surgeon’s Hall Riot over today and next week and you can make up your own mind.

It was on November 18, 1870, that a group of seven women approached Surgeons’ Hall in the capital to sit their exams in anatomy. They were Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell and the Englishwoman recognised as their leader, Sophia Jex-Blake.

This was a time when the British Empire could be ruled over by Queen Victoria, but women were definitely second-class citizens in almost every walk of life, especially the professions which they were barred from entering. Each of the seven women had been studying medicine at the university under horrendous circumstances. They were only allowed to matriculate in 1869 after the University Court was persuaded by the likes of Sir James Young Simpson that women should be allowed to study, with Edinburgh thus becoming the first university to permit women students. The university was far from welcoming, however. The women were charged higher fees than male students, and they had to arrange lectures for themselves at the extra-mural Medical College as university rules allowed professors and lecturers to refuse to teach women.

It was the attitude of most of the male student body which was truly appalling as we look back with hindsight from our modern civilised approach to equality – though many women would no doubt dispute whether true equality really exists in modern society.

Not to put too fine a point on it, while some university men were supportive, most of the male students were misogynists and thorough-going cowards. The Edinburgh Seven faced a daily barrage of insults and intimidation, but nearly always by mobs of young men rather than individuals – Sophia Jex-Blake in particular had a way with words, and could deliver withering putdowns to anyone insulting her. The Seven also almost always stood together as they often had to run the gauntlet of gangs of fellow students.

People outside the university were unpleasant to them as well. They were shouted at in the streets, and in an era where good manners towards women in public was akin to a chivalric code, the Seven found doors barred in their faces and they were usually cold-shouldered by fellow students. The devastating ill-treatment all came to a head at Surgeons’ Hall. The previous month, the Seven had been banned from being allowed to “walk the wards” of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. This practice was very much part of a medical student’s education, and amid suggestions that the Seven should only be allowed to study obstetrics and gynaecology, they continued to study all forms of medicine, including botany at which five of the women won prizes and chemistry in which Edith Pechey came top and should have won the Hope Scholarship – disgracefully it was given to the man who came second.

Medical historian Elaine Thompson has described what happened in October 1870: “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, 16 out of the 19 members of the medical staff voted against allowing women into the Infirmary for clinical instruction.”

This ban on walking the wards was simply unjust as all the students sat through the same lectures but the Seven were stopped from going the next step. In 2020, Aya Riadh described what happened at Surgeons’ Hall in a blog for the Edinburgh Medical Timeline: “When the women arrived at Surgeon’s Hall they were met with a crowd of several hundred people – the majority of which were outlookers – that was big enough to stop traffic for an hour. Their male peers, several of whom were drunk and holding whisky bottles, were gathered outside shouting verbal abuse at them, throwing rubbish at them and blocking their entrance. When they were eventually ushered in by janitors and sympathetic peers they were able to get to the exam hall. However the exam was once again disrupted by the students releasing the Royal College’s pet sheep at the time, ‘Poor’ Mallie, into the room.”

Covered in mud, the Seven nevertheless completed the exam and on leaving they were once again pelted with mud and rubbish until a group of young male students called the Irish Brigade saw them to safety.

The treatment of the Seven caused a sensation in the press. The Edinburgh Seven had the strong support of The Scotsman newspaper, and not just because its editor Alexander Russell (or Russel) would go on to marry one of their number, Mrs Helen Evans, nee Carter, who was then a widow. The Scotsman and other newspapers covered the riot and in an editorial Russell thundered: “A certain class of medical students are doing their utmost to make sure that the name of medical student synonymous with all that is cowardly and degrading, it is imperative upon come forward and express... their detestation of the proceedings which have characterised and dishonoured the opposition to ladies pursuing the study of medicine in Edinburgh.”

The tide was turning and next week I will tell the story of how Jex-Blake and company won the right to practise medicine.