SOPHIA Jex-Blake. Helen Evans. Mary Anderson. Edith Pechey. Emily Bovell. Matilda Chaplin. Isobel Thorne.

In the face of ridicule from traditional professors and a society founded on patriarchal values, these seven pioneering women set their sights on earning a medical degree in 1860s Edinburgh.

Led by Jex-Blake, they would eventually become known as the “Edinburgh Seven” and now form the basis of a new book by author Janey Jones.

Titled The Edinburgh Seven: The Story of the First Women to Study Medicine, it marks a change for Jones whose career has mainly been focused on writing children’s books.

What piqued her interest?

Despite being a published writer for 20 years, Jones told The National that moving into the realm of non-fiction was like “being a newbie”.

“I’ve written a lot of books for children and there was something about reaching the middle of my life that made me think about my own university days”, she said.

Jones is proud to call herself a graduate of Edinburgh University herself and it was only in 2019 that the seven women were posthumously awarded their degrees.

Jones added: “I thought that was lovely but there is a complexity at the heart of this book because although Edinburgh University was the first in Britain to take on female medical students it didn’t go smoothly.   

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“Even so they were the only ones to trial it initially. I suddenly thought somewhere in lockdown I really want to tell this whole story.”

Although Jones was able to find remnants of the story, sometimes in book ordered from as far away as New York, nobody had yet collated everything together.

"They were almost like celebrity feminists and were talked about in Boston and New York.

“There were scattered bits of the story and I thought I’ll do this and ended up down the rabbit hole.”

From fiction to non-fiction

Jones wanted to tackle a story that was a “bit more complex” for her new work. “Not that writing for children is easy”, she adds, laughing.

Although these women were taken on by the university, they were viewed by many as hobbyists rather than as on par with the male students.

They eventually left Edinburgh without their degrees to study in Europe following several court cases and returned as fully-fledged doctors.

“Researching a factual book you have this huge pressure of history on your shoulders that you don’t want to make any mistakes or misrepresent these women dishonourably.

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“You don’t want to exaggerate for effect but you end up being very cautious. I haven’t been able to find a lot of their relatives for example.

“I’m hoping that might come about now the book is out but I did look quite hard to find some people that might have some primary source material but it was all a bit veiled."

Modern relevance

Jones admits she was surprised the story hadn’t been picked up properly before, explaining the women were often a “footnote” in a wider story.
“I thought they deserved their own book and to have their own story told.”

In spite of the book charting a story from Scotland in the late 1860s, the author believes the themes still hold great relevance today.

“I have come across some bizarre examples of misogyny on my journey and I have heard the women referred to as ‘those battle axes’ or not wanting to hear any more about them and we see across the world, in countries like Afghanistan, that women accessing education is a major problem.

“I’m still seeing patriarchal sentiment out there in the top echelons of society and that was the Edinburgh Seven’s problems.

“I don’t want women today to sleepwalk through that existing prejudice.”