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Women in medicine: Fiona Godlee and Sophia Jex-Blake

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The Women in medicine project showcases a number of today’s leading female clinicians and the women from the history of medicine who have inspired them. 

Dr Fiona Godlee is a leading figure in medical publishing and editor-in-chief of The BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal; she is the first woman to hold that position since the publication’s foundation in 1840.   

Fiona studied medicine at the University of Cambridge, completing her training in London. A fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, she has written widely for The BMJ since 1990. Following a period as a Harkness fellow at Harvard University, she returned to the UK and established BMJ Clinical Evidence in 1999.

Dr Godlee has served as president of the World Association of Medical Editors and chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics; she is joint editor of Peer Review in Health Sciences and vice chair of the board of The BMJ. She is an honorary professor at the Netherlands School of Primary Care Research and a senior visiting fellow at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health.

The redoubtable Sophia Jex-Blake was a powerful voice calling for women’s admission to universities and the medical profession, spheres from which they had hitherto been barred. All of us working in these fields owe a debt to her resilience and determination, often in the face of abuse and sometimes even violence.

Fiona Godlee on her inspiration Sophia Jex-Blake

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake (1840–1912) was a leading campaigner for women in medical and higher education, the first practising female doctor in Scotland, and only the third woman to be registered with the General Medical Council.   

Sophia Jex-Blake was inspired to pursue a career in medicine following a visit to the USA in the 1860s. Returning home, she resolved to study at university, applying to Edinburgh. Although academics accepted her application, the authorities rejected it, as they could not make adjustments in ‘the interests of one lady’.

Undeterred, Sophia sought out other female candidates. Together they applied and were accepted, becoming known as the ‘Edinburgh seven’. Over time, hostility grew to the female students. They were harassed and, in 1870, a riot broke out as they attempted to sit an examination. Under pressure, the university refused to allow the women to graduate.

Many of the group, including Jex-Blake, finally qualified at other European universities. Sophia received her MD from the University of Bern in 1877.

Prior to her own qualification, and in response to the difficulties she and other women encountered as they attempted to gain a medical education and official recognition, Sophia Jex-Blake was among the founders of the London School of Medicine for Women. The school would go on to train the majority of female doctors in Britain in the years leading up to the First World War, ultimately becoming part of the University of London and developing into the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine.

Following qualification, Dr Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh in 1878, worked in private practice and established a small outpatient unit for poorer patients, this initiative ultimately growing into the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children.

She also founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, although the experience was not a happy one, ending with a court case and its dissolution. Nevertheless, the school paved the way for the University of Edinburgh to admit female students properly in 1892, an event that would never have happened but for Sophia Jex-Blake’s persistence.