The 1860s lesbian who stopped at nothing in her quest to become a doctor

Portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake, age 25
Sophia Jex-Blake, age 25 Photo: Portrait by Samuel Laurence, 1865, via Wikimedia

Sophia Jex Blake was everything that Victorian society hated about women: outspoken, strident, and determined. 

Fiercely ambitious, she dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she was not legally allowed access to medical school. Refusing to accept this, she campaigned for years to be permitted to attend school and legally practice medicine. 

Jex Blake was also a lesbian. She had a series of romantic entanglements, which she took enormous pains to hide from the world. Her eventual life partner was another doctor, Margaret Todd, and together the two women worked to bring about social reform and acceptance and to help establish women as credible professionals in the medical field. 

Throughout all of this, they concealed the true nature of their relationship, fearing that it would irrevocably damage their work and Jex Blake’s legacy. 

And what a legacy it is. 

Jex Blake was born on the south coast, the daughter of a retired lawyer. Like most girls her age, she was educated at home until age 8 when she was sent to school and fell in love with learning. 

Prodigiously talented, she was offered a place at Queen’s College in London – the first educational establishment in Britain to grant women academic qualifications – where she was later asked to become a mathematics teacher. Her family was set against her taking the position. In fact, her father forbade his daughter from working for pay, so she offered her services for free. 

While in London, she lived in the household of Octavia Hilll, famous for her social welfare campaigning and for later founding the National Trust – as well as for living with another woman, Harriet Yorke. Jex Blake’s relationship with Hill was, in her own words, one of “passionate intimacy,” leading to speculation that it was at this point that Jex Blake first began to have romantic relationships with women. 

She also spent time in Edinburgh, where she met with trailblazing future physician Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson, who inspired her interest in public health. Living in Scotland in 1869, Jex Blake enrolled alongside five others in the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. They were later joined by two more, and together, the women became known as the Edinburgh Seven 

Initially, the seven women all had their applications to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary rejected because many felt that to admit women would, in the words of Professor Robert Christison, “lower the standing of the medical profession.” A contemporary surgeon, William Walker, likewise argued that the idea of being treated by women would be “offensive in nature… violating the feelings of propriety and decorum.” 

But there were no rules that forbade them from studying, so they were permitted to attend classes. On November 18, 1870, Jex Blake and the other women went to sit for their anatomy exam when she saw “a dense mob filling up the road… We walked up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed in our faces by several young men.” 

In order to practice medicine, the seven women needed to sit their exams, and their campaigning to be allowed to do so attracted a huge amount of publicity and the support of such distinguished men as Charles Darwin. Ultimately, in 1873 the British courts ruled that women were still not permitted to graduate with a medical degree or practice medicine. So, despite studying and passing, the University still denied the women their degrees. 

Jex Blake was under a huge amount of pressure. Her family disapproved of her actions and the publicity they brought her. On one occasion during the campaign, Jex Blake found herself in court charged with outspokenness and defaming the character of one of the male teachers. 

While she was professionally outspoken, there was another aspect of her life that Jex Blake kept studiously hidden from public view: her love life. 

Jex Blake would later write in her (now mostly destroyed diaries), “I believe I love women too much to ever love a man.” This gave her an advantage in one way, for as she would later state, it meant that she was not “afraid to step on mens toes,” and with the prospect of marriage off the table, Jex Blake was free to be as hot-tempered and ambitious as she wished. Jex Blake was always one of the least socially acceptable of the Edinburgh Seven simply because she had no husband at home. 

After the 1873 ruling, the Edinburgh Seven traveled down to London, where Jex Blake founded the London School of Medicine for Women. Three years later, the UK Medical Act allowed anyone who was qualified, regardless of gender, to practice medicine.

Still, there was a great deal of hostility in Britain against the idea of female physicians. Other countries were more liberal, and Jex Blake was able to sit for her examinations at the College of Physicians in Dublin. Going abroad was her only realistic option, and in 1877, she finally received her MD from the University of Berne before passing her exams in Dublin the same year. She was now the third woman to be registered as a doctor in Britain. 

Keen to ensure her knowledge and practices were up to date, she had traveled to America in order to observe the newly set up Boston hospital where she met fellow medic Lucy Sewell. The two quickly became involved and planned to live and work together as both romantic and professional partners. Such a vision of a working same-gender relationship was utterly alien at the time and considered abhorrent by society. Her plans with Sewell fell apart when Jex Blake was forced to return to the UK following the death of her father. 

In 1886, Jex Blake returned to Edinburgh where she helped establish the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. There, she met the woman who would become her life partner, Dr. Margaret Todd, who studied at the Edinburgh School of Medicine and would graduate with an MD from Brussels in 1894. Particulars of the two women’s relationship are hard to pin down, not least because Jex Blake ordered Todd to burn all her letters after her death. The school attracted a good deal of negative attention as it was. If one of the founders had been caught engaging in “unnatural” behavior, the result, both women knew, would have been disastrous. 

To practice medicine and further the cause of women’s education and suffrage, both women concealed the true nature of their relationship, living separately for many years. They channeled their energy into campaigning to improve public health in Edinburgh. Their papers and reports attracted a good deal of attention, and their suggestions were taken up regarding freshwater and improving access to health care for the poor. 

Despite their circumspection, there is some circumstantial evidence that their personal relationship was something of an ‘open secret’ accepted by their friends. They were often referred to together in invitations and correspondence, gradually accepted amongst their friends and colleagues in much the same way that their professional capabilities were. 

Together, Todd and Jex Blake went on to write a series of articles arguing for women’s rights and stating that women should have equal access to education. They also practiced medicine together, largely from Jex Blake’s house and practice at Bruntsfield Lodge. 

When Jex Blake retired in 1899, the two women could finally be wholly together. They moved to Rotherfield, where Todd wrote, and the two women welcomed friends and students alike. 

Jex Blake died in 1912, and Todd wrote a book detailing her lover’s life, although she carefully omitted herself and destroyed her letters and diaries. She erased the role she played in supporting her partner for fear it would damage Jex Blake’s reputation. 

Even today, the Edinburgh Medical Society website does not list Todd as Jex Blake’s partner, though it does list the husbands of the other members of the Edinburgh Seven. 

Todd died just three months after her book was published, possibly by suicide, although this remains open to debate. It was a sad end to a partnership that had achieved so much. 

The relationship between these two remarkable women and doctors reflects the personal and romantic difficulties women in the late nineteenth century faced and the sacrifices that were demanded of them. These sacrifices deserve to be remembered, as they paved the way for more widespread acceptance of women’s rights and LGBTQ+ love.

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