Determined to be a Physician

Sophia Jex-Blake was born at 3 The Croft (now 16 Croft Road), Hastings, in 1840. She was christened in St Clement's Church, just yards from the house where she lived until her family moved to Brighton in 1851.

As a child she was 'stormy, tumultuous, and unmanageable' (Strachey, 1928). These qualities stood her in good stead for the struggles she faced as an adult. She originally wanted to be a teacher, but her father refused to allow her to study. He later relented and in 1858 let her attend classes at Queen's College. She became a maths tutor but, as her parents thought it was wrong for women of their social class to work, she was not allowed to accept a salary. Sophia taught in Germany, and in the United States where she met and stayed with Dr. Lucy Sewell. As a result of seeing Dr. Sewell run a women's dispensary, Sophia decided that she too wanted to be a doctor. It was possible for women to study and qualify as doctors in the US, but when her father died, Sophia returned to England in 1868 to look after her mother. In England, no medical school would accept women students.

'Tis a beautiful thing, a woman's sphere!
She may nurse a sick bed through the small hours drear,
Brave ghastly infection untouched by fear,
But she musn't receive a doctor's fee,
And she mustn't (oh shocking!) be called an MD,
For if woman were suffered to take a degree,
She'd be lifted quite out of her sphere!

It took Sophia eight years of struggle to qualify as a doctor, because of opposition from men. Her description of one episode in 1871 is reproduced here. Her opponents were the universities, the male students, and the British Medical Association. She eventually established a practice in Edinburgh where she joined the women's suffrage movement.

Sophia Jex Blake was a lesbian and never married; she once said: "I believe I love women too much ever to love a man" (Todd, p.65). In 1899 she retired to Tunbridge Wells where she died in 1912, aged 62.

This biography of Sophia Jex Blake is taken from my recent publication Notable Women of Victorian Hastings

Top:  Sophia Jex-Blake
Bottom:  16 Croft Road. The plaque to Dr. Blake is completely obscured by the hedge

Ray Strachey: The Cause (Bell & Sons 1928)
Woman's Sphere: one verse of six published in The Englishwoman's Journal, September 1875
Margaret Todd: Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (1918)


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Barbara Bodichon

Hastings maps and photos

Suffragettes in Hastings

Suffragettes in Thanet

Marianne North

Elsie Bowerman


Marianne North

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