Remarks on the Admission
of Female Medical Students
January 1, 1871 — Annual meeting of “Contributors” (governing body) to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Scotland
I called on Dr. [Robert] Christison, who told me curtly that the question was entirely decided in his own mind, and that it was useless for me to enter upon it. I did not call on Dr. Andrew Wood; but I was introduced to him in Sir James Simpson’s room by Sir James, whose large-heartedness and large-mindedness made him from the first our warm friend and helper. On this introduction, I asked Dr. Wood to favour me with five minutes’ conversation, to which his reply was that he would rather not, and turned on his heel and pursued a conversation with other persons in the room. These are specimens of the way in which a few a — very few only — met me on my arrival in Edinburgh; and I must do those few the justice to say that their conduct has been absolutely and uniformly consistent ever since. Never have we applied for educational facilities of any kind but they have done their best to meet us with an uncompromising refusal, so far as it was in their power.
When the Senatus Academicus gave me leave to enter as a visitor the Botanical and Natural History classes, it was the members of this hostile clique who got a veto put on the permission. When we applied for permission merely for separate classes, exactly the same dead opposition confronted us. When, through the liberality of public feeling, this boon was granted to us, the same adversaries continued to meet us at every corner, even after one of the chief had stated publicly in the Senatus that, the experiment once begun, he would use every means in his power to give it a fair trial.
We endeavoured to make private arrangements at great expense for separate anatomical instruction; we were told repeatedly that our efforts would be useless, as indeed they proved, because certain all-powerful members of the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons had resolved to ostracise any medical men who agreed to give us instructions. When the absolute impossibility of getting a complete course of separate instruction drove us to ask admittance to the ordinary classes, to which several Professors would willingly have admitted us, the same phalanx of opponents raised the cry of indelicacy — knowing that thus they might prevail in ranging against us public opinion, which would have been on our side had the real issue — education or no education — been declared. And now I want to point out that it was certain of these same men, who had, so to speak, pledged themselves from the first to defeat our hopes of education, and render all our efforts abortive — who, sitting in their places on the Infirmary Board, took advantage of the almost irresponsible power with which they were temporarily invested to thwart and nullify all our efforts. I believe that a majority of the managers desired to act justly in this matter; but the presence of these bitter partisans and the overwhelming influence of every kind brought to bear by them prevailed to carry the day — to refuse us not only admission on the ordinary terms, but equally to refuse us every opportunity which could answer our purpose. I know of the noble protests made against this injury by some of the most respected and most learned members of the Board, but all their efforts were in vain, because strings were pulled and weapons brought into play of which they either did not know or could not expose the character. Till then, during a period of five weeks, the conduct of the students with whom we had been associated in Surgeons’ Hall in the most trying of all our studies, that of Practical Anatomy, had been quiet, respectful, and in every way inoffensive. They had evidently accepted our presence there in earnest silent work as a matter of course, and Dr. Handy-side, in answer to a question of mine after the speeches made at the meeting of the General Council, assured me that, in the course of some twenty sessions, he had never had a month of such quiet earnest work as since we entered his rooms. But at a certain meeting of the managers, when our memorial was presented a majority of those present were, I understand, in favour of immediately admitting us to the Infirmary. The minority alleged want of due notice to the question, and succeeded in obtaining an adjournment. What means were used in the interim I cannot say, or what influence was brought to bear: but I do know that from that day the conduct of the students was utterly changed, that those who had hitherto been quiet and courteous became impertinent and offensive; and at last came the day of that disgraceful riot, when the College gates were shut in our faces and our little band bespattered with mud from head to foot. It is true that other students, who were too manly to dance as puppets on such ignoble strings, came indignantly to our rescue, that by them the gates were wrenched open and we protected in our return to our homes. But none the less was it evident that some new influence, wholly distinct from any intrinsic facts, had been at work.
This I do know, that the riot was not wholly or mainly due to the students at Surgeons’ Hall, I know that Dr. Christison’s class assistant was one of the leading rioters and the foul language he used could only be excused on the supposition I heard that he was intoxicated. I do not say that Dr. Christison knew of or sanctioned his presence, but I do say that I think he would not have been there had he thought the doctor would have strongly objected to his presence.
Christison: I must again appeal to you, my lord. I think the language used regarding my assistant is language that no one is entitled to use at such an assembly as this where a gentleman is not present to defend himself, and to say whether it be true or not. I do not know whether it is true or not, but I know that my assistant is a thorough gentleman, otherwise he would never have been my assistant, and I appeal to you again, my lord, whether language such as this is to be allowed in the mouth of any person. I am perfectly sure there is not one gentleman in the whole assembly who would have used such language in regard to an absentee.
Jex-Blake: If Dr. Christison prefers . . .
Christison: I wish nothing but that this foul language shall be put an end to.
Lord Provost: I do not know what the foul language is. She merely said that, in her opinion…
Christison: In her opinion the gentleman was intoxicated.
Jex-Blake: I did not say he was intoxicated. I said I was told he was.
Lord Provost: Withdraw the word “intoxicated.”
Jex-Blake: I said it was the only excuse for his conduct. If Dr. Christison prefers that I should say he used the language when sober, I will withdraw the other supposition.
Source: The Englishwoman’s Review of Social and Industrial Questions, April 1871