Edinburgh finally gives first female medical students degrees 150 years later

Seven current medical students collected them


Seven women who were prevented from graduating from the University of Edinburgh have been awarded their degrees 150 years after they enrolled.

The group of Victorian women, known as the "Edinburgh Seven", were the first women to study medicine at a British university. However, they were prevented from graduating in 1973 after the Court of Sessions refused to award them degrees.

The women were were awarded posthumous honorary Bachelor of Medicine degrees in a ceremony at the McEwan Hall on Saturday. Edinburgh's Vice-Chancellor said it was "a way to correct a historical wrong."

Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Sophia Jex-Blake, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne LL, all passed the matriculation exam and started studying at the university in 1869.

While they were at Edinburgh, a riot broke out when they were due to sit an anatomy exam, during which male students pelted them with mud.

The university charged the women higher fees than their fellow students and forced them to arrange their own lectures, as university staff were permitted but not required to teach women.

Academics even went as far as to vote against them being allowed to continue their studies.

In 1873, the Court of Session ruled in favour of the university's right to refuse the Edinburgh Seven degrees, meaning none of them graduated.

The group led a long campaign against their treatment. They gained national attention and the support of Charles Darwin.

As a result of the campaign, legislation was introduced in 1877 ensuring women could study at university.

At the ceremony on Saturday, the certificates were collected by seven female students from the medical school.

Third year Simran Paya, who received an award on behalf of Sophia Jex-Blake, said: “We are honoured to accept these degrees on behalf of our predecessors, who are an inspiration to us all.”

Vice-Chancellor Prof. Peter Mathieson said: "It was a great source of credit to the university that they were admitted here, the first women to do any degree at any British university.

"Then it was a source of embarrassment that they were never allowed to graduate, and so it was a way to correct a historical wrong."

Following the graduation he said: "We are delighted to confer the degrees rightfully owed to this incredible group of women.

"The segregation and discrimination that the Edinburgh Seven faced might belong to history, but barriers still exist that deter too many talented young people from succeeding at university.

"We must learn from these women and strive to widen access for all who have the potential to succeed."

Featured image via Instagram (@edinburghmedicalschool)