Women now make up close to 50% of doctors on the UK medical register. But barriers preventing women from gaining medical qualifications and registration did not fall dramatically, they were worn down slowly, one impediment at a time.

Here, Courtney Brucato and Lucy Myatt, from the GMC’s archives team, look back at the struggles of some early female pioneers.

It wasn’t until 1944 that universal co-education in UK medical schools became a reality, when university grants became conditional on admitting a quota of women students. At the heart of the struggle are a group of exceptionally talented and determined women who organised, campaigned and endured their way to securing a medical education, and registration, for themselves and for those who would follow.

The Medical Act 1858 established what became the General Medical Council. It also established the Medical Register, a list of names of Britain’s qualified medical practitioners. To appear on the medical register, doctors had to have obtained a recognised qualification from either a British university, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Society of Apothecaries of London and the Apothecaries Hall of Dublin.

When the act came into force it was possible to be admitted to the register with a foreign qualification, but only if it had been obtained prior to 1858 and the holder of the qualification was practising in Britain before 1 October 1858.

The only woman to appear on the first medical register was Dr Elizabeth Blackwell. Dr Blackwell was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the USA and made a brief working visit to England, in time to meet the foreign qualification exception. As hers was the only woman’s name to appear on the first register, some observers thought the inclusion was a mistake.

In September 1865 Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the second woman to have her name on the register, after passing the Society of Apothecaries in London’s examination. By this point, and despite there being just two women were on the register, there was increasing male resistance to women being admitted into the profession. As a result, the Society of Apothecaries made it impossible for women to attend some of the lecture courses that were mandatory for those wishing to sit its exam.

From this point on, despite the act not explicitly barring women from registration, all the routes for women to gain a medical qualification were closed.

The GMC tried to keep itself out of the debate, and only became involved when it was pressed for a position. In 1875 it agreed the following statement to be sent to the Privy Council:

‘The council are of the opinion that the study and practise of medicine and surgery instead of affording a field of exertion well fitted for women, present special difficulties which cannot be safely ignored … but the council are not prepared to say that women ought to be excluded’.

One of the fiercest critics of women gaining medical education was Sir Robert Christison, who represented the Scottish medical profession on the GMC until 1873. He believed the inclusion of women in medicine would lower professional standards.

Christison, and others, thought that if women were intent on gaining medical educations, then their studies should be limited and exclude knowledge of major surgical operations and of diseases affecting men after infancy.

After intense debate the GMC finally agreed to the formation of joint examining boards and ‘any person’ seeking registration could appear before the examining boards to be examined in all subjects.

The Edinburgh Seven

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake
Dr Sophia Jex-Blake

The Edinburgh Seven were a group of women, led by Sophia Jex-Blake who sought to gain professional medical qualifications from the University of Edinburgh.

In 1869, she applied to study medicine at the university. Her application was initially accepted, before being later rejected on the grounds that it would not be acceptable for her to attend classes with male students, and it would be impractical to hold separate classes for just one woman.

Undeterred, she advertised for other women to join her. She was soon joined by Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin and Helen Evans, who all possessed excellent academic records and wanted to study medicine. The five were permitted to take the matriculation exam, and all passed.

Isabel Thorne
Dr Isabel Thorne

On 2 November 1869, the women signed the matriculation roll and were recorded as the first female medical students of a British university. By the end of their first year Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell had joined them, after which they became known as ‘The Edinburgh Seven’.

The Seven encountered numerous struggles during their time at Edinburgh. They had to arrange their own classes, made difficult by the fact that although the lecturers were allowed to teach women they were not required to. The lecturers that did agree charged very high fees due to the small size of the class. Nevertheless, all the women passed the examinations held at the end of their first term, four with distinction.

In 1870 they won the right to attend mixed classes, as separate classes for women were considered inadequate for qualification to take professional exams. In November 1870 the Seven were walking to Surgeons’ Hall for an anatomy class, when they were met by a mob of hostile students, and a crowd of others who verbally abused them, pelted them with mud and blocked their entrance.

Dr Edith Pechey
Dr Edith Pechey

The Seven eventually made it inside, where the class was interrupted by the noise from outside. A sheep was even released into the room to cause further disturbance. The lecturer allowed the sheep to remain in the interest of continuing with the class, stating ’let it remain. It has more sense than those who sent it in here’. The incident became known as ‘the riot at surgeons’ hall’ and was reported widely, gaining support for the women’s cause.

Following legal action, the Court of Sessions eventually ruled, in June 1873, that the University’s admission of women was beyond its powers and therefore the women were not eligible to graduate.

Some of the Seven did manage to make it onto the GMC register through alternative routes. On 11 August 1876, the ‘Enabling Act’ was passed which stated that the nineteen recognised examining bodies were permitted to accept women candidates but were not compelled to do so. In 1877, the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland became the first qualification body to admit women for examination, becoming the first medical institution to award a medical licence to women.

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, Dr Edith Pechey, Dr Matilda Chaplin, Dr Mary Anderson and Dr Emily Bovell went on to sit and pass the exams of the Irish College in 1877, allowing them to join the GMC’s medical register.