Author: Shirley Roberts
The most symbolic characterisation of Sophia Jex-Blake in this book is of a determined woman who became ‘the driving force of the campaign’ to open up medical training to all women. The biography shows how this inclusive crusade distinguished her mission from those of the other pioneers of female medical education who all set out to fulfil individual aspirations. The book demonstrates how she conceived of her struggle, not as a narrow personal endeavour of becoming a doctor, but as an emancipation struggle on behalf of all women who aspired to join the rigidly male profession of the time. The narrative conveyed the sense that she ‘always believed she was acting on behalf of all women who shared her ambitions’, and that she was ‘helping other women to gain their rightful place in society’. The book chronicles her passionate journey to medicine in America, Europe and England, but it emphasised her labours in Scotland where she fought her most defining and dramatic battles with the medical establishment on behalf of her coalition of like-minded women. The book eloquently captured her wholehearted and selfless commitment to this mission which ‘absorbed all her mental and emotional resources‘, and which laid the foundations for the ‘subsequent success and fame’ attained by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Britain’s first woman doctor and administrator of its first female medical school (pages 4, 90 and 109).
The personality of Jex-Blake the book sketched is that of a defiant woman whose independent and radical streak permeates her life. In describing this personality trait, the author noted that ‘even as a child’ she startled her parents with ‘her inability to conform to the pattern of behaviour expected of small girls in early Victorian times’. Similarly, the book referred to how her ‘vigorous presence‘ challenged the authorities of several boarding schools and necessitated her changing schools six times in eight years. The author however pointed out that she only ‘exasperated her teachers with her impertinence’ because she was ‘excessively clever‘ and her ‘depth of insight surpassed that of her teachers’ who were unable to satisfy her hunger for knowledge. In describing her other character traits, the book referred to her ‘tactlessness and quick temper‘ which were evident in her early years, and manifested later in the domineering hold she had over the students who joined her campaign. On the other hand the book also emphasised her leadership qualities when it depicted her as a ‘born leader‘ who saw ‘no distinction between serving and leading’. Her genuinely empathic and humane sensibilities were also reflected in her letters which the book quoted liberally; these showed her as good-natured, thoughtful, reflective, kind, witty, and concerned for the oppressed and the disadvantaged (pages 6-15, 24, 71-73, 90 and 112).
Like other pioneering women doctors, Jex-Blake’s commitment to a medical career took time to crystallise. Indeed the book pointed out that teaching, and not medicine, was her first career choice because at that time ‘the only respectable occupation for middle-class women was that of governess or school mistress‘. The book argued that her choice of teaching was guided by her selfless conviction that girls needed ‘a much higher standard of education’ then was available then. Her altruism was also evident in her decision, whilst still in teacher training, to volunteer with organisations which provided education to indigent women and children. The narrative showed that it was whilst seeking for better educational opportunities that she travelled to the United States and eventually found herself working at the hospital set up by Elizabeth Blackwell – the first American woman doctor. This experience was what planted the idea of becoming a doctor in Jex-Blake’s mind, the author arguing that this was because it showed her that ‘women were capable of filling senior academic positions of distinction any man would envy’. It was however her realisation that only female doctors could properly and safely address the health needs of other women that the book said made Jex-Blake fall ‘desperately in love with medicine as a science and as an art‘, and led her to the ‘important decision’ of making medicine her vocation (pages 18-19, 23, 48 and 60-69).
Forced by the circumstance of her father’s illness to abandon the medical training she had commenced in the Untied States and return to Britain, the book chronicled this as the most turbulent and dramatic phase of Jex-Blake’s life. Consistent with her action-oriented nature, the book stated that she almost immediately started a public campaign for ‘British universities to open their degree examinations to women’, and she focused her energies on Edinburgh University partly because of its high reputation. The book recounted her fervent but meticulous campaign as she established a circle of intending female medical students ‘who shared her ambitions’. The author particularly highlighted the unfair treatment meted out to the group before and after they were admitted to the medical school, documenting such injustices as the imposition of higher tuition fees, denial of access to teaching, segregation from their male colleagues, denial of deserved prizes ‘no matter how well they performed’, and even physical threats. But perhaps the most egregious inequity the author explored was the implacable hostility of Prof. Robert Christison who she described as their ‘most dangerous opponent’ who believed nature ‘did not endow them with the intellectual ability and stamina of men’, and that their acceptance into medicine ‘would inevitably lower its standards‘ (pages 74-77, 80-105 and 111).
The biography of Jex-Blake will not be complete without reference to her complex and frequently combustible relationships, and this was perhaps sadly most notable in the book’s account of her association with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain. In documenting their various interactions, the book described how Jex-Blake had most charitably and eagerly supported Anderson’s unsuccessful attempt to enrol in Edinburgh University. At a time when she ‘had no personal interest in medicine as a career’, the book reported that Jex-Blake was ‘delighted to be able to help Elizabeth’, and threw herself totally to the task, providing lodging and making appointments on her behalf. Unfortunately, the author noted, this ‘shared experience did not result in a deep and lasting friendship’ because ‘their differences and temperament made them ill at ease in each other’s company’. The book also highlighted how their subsequent relationship was marred by the way Anderson ‘bluntly’ discouraged Jex-Blake from becoming a doctor because she did not think the latter was ‘specially suited to medical work’ – a comment which the author said ‘certainly hurt Sophia’. The book explored Jex-Blake’s other frequently stormy friendships such as that with the foremost social reformer Octavia Hill, and the one with ‘the noted feminist’ Josephine Butler (pages 34-39, 65, 26-31 and 78-79).
Jex-Blake’s efforts to get her group to graduate as doctors in Edinburgh unfortunately failed, the book poignantly and regretfully remarking that after four years of protracted political and legal upheavals, ‘the first British university to open its doors to women had closed them again’. The book nevertheless pointed out that the campaign succeeded in many other ways because ‘each setback’ they encountered resulted in ‘a surge of popular sympathy‘ for their cause; for example, the book noted the favourable media coverage and inspiring public support the group got with time. The campaign also emboldened Jex-Blake to embark on a political and media canvassing venture which not only brought the issue of female medical education to Parliament, it also directly led to the founding of the London School of Medicine for Women. It was also gratifying that most members of the group qualified as doctors in Ireland where the College of Physicians was prepared ‘to admit women to examinations’; it was after this, the book enthused, that Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh to set up as the ‘first woman doctor‘ in Scotland where ‘her practice grew steadily‘. It is a further testament to her success, the book maintained, that her efforts paved the way for ‘the first woman to obtain a degree in medicine from a British university’ when Edith Shove earned her MB of London University (pages 111, 136-158 and 165).
The picture of Jex-Blake this book paints is of a complex personality who was passionately and selflessly committed to social reform but whose purity of purpose and determined pursuit of high ideals frequently brought her into conflict with those who fell short of her expectations. The narrative portrays her as the first woman to have a globally ambitious vision for female medical education in her time, and as spirited and zealous in implementing her agenda for change. The author had the open-mindedness to depict the full range of her subject’s character, including her pushy and perhaps indelicate diplomatic skills and forceful approaches which may have been requisite in the face of the indomitable challenges she faced, but which may have limited the success of her later efforts. In depicting the various sides of this pioneering woman doctor, the book extracted profound lessons in both aspiration and in leadership.
This is indeed a fair biography of a unique personality in medical history whose sense of responsibility appears unmatched by her contemporaries. The author successfully conveyed her diverse sides, highlighting her achievements but not shying away from criticising her shortcomings. The life of Jex-Blake documented in the book is replete with lessons for healthcare as well as for reform; in her single-minded and unselfish nature are the ingredients of success in any enterprise, and in her failures are pointers to the different ways to achieve objectives. The book eloquently demonstrates how the strength of character of this historical personality galvanised the female medical movement and gave it a vision, and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Routledge, London, 1993
Number of chapters: 11
Number of pages: 207
Star rating: 5