Jex-Blake was born in Hastings on England’s south coast in 1840 the daughter of a retired lawyer. She was home-educated until the age of eight and then attended various private schools.
In 1858, Jex-Blake enrolled at Queen’s College, London, and the following year was offered a post as a mathematics tutor. However, her parents had very traditional views on education and only allowed her to accept the position on the condition that she didn’t accept a salary.
Jex-Blake then travelled to America and visited a number of co-education schools, later publishing an essay on what she saw there. She also met and was influenced by Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, one of that country’s pioneering female physicians. This was a turning point for her as she realised that medicine was her vocation.
In 1867, she applied to Harvard University to study medicine and received the reply that ‘there is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university’. She hoped to study instead at the new medical college in New York but her father died and she returned to England to support her mother.
She applied to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh and although the faculty voted in her favour, the University Court rejected her application on the grounds that the university could not make the necessary arrangements ‘in the interest of one lady’.
Jex-Blake advertised in The Scotsman for other women to join her and formed the Edinburgh Seven that together succeeded in a second application when the University of Edinburgh became the first in Britain to admit women.
The events made national headlines and influenced the Medical Faculty to refuse graduation for the women, forcing them to complete their training in Europe, including Jex-Blake who qualified as a physician at the University of Berne in 1877. A few months later, she qualified as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland meaning she could, at last, be registered with the General Medical Council, the third woman doctor to do so in the UK.
Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh and practised privately as Scotland’s first woman doctor. She also opened a clinic where poor women could receive medical attention for a fee of just a few pence. This eventually became the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women and staffed entirely by women.
She retired in 1889 and moved to Rotherfield in East Sussex where she died in 1912.