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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

New WIS Book Release: The Edinburgh Seven by Janey Jones

There are few stories in the history of Women in Science with as much innate and compelling drama as that of the Edinburgh Seven, which was the group of seven women led by Sophia Jex-Blake who from 1869 to 1873 attempted, and ultimately failed, to earn a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. Their tale has everything - long-shot underdogs fighting for their right to an education against overwhelming odds, a riot, courtroom conflicts, inevitable institutional treachery in spite of surprising individual steadfastness, and virtue trammeled in the short term but triumphing in the long. Whereas most of the time, we researchers of the history of women scientists have to rest content with telling stories of quiet long struggle only finding proper recognition after the subject’s death, with the Seven we get to talk about people who put everything on the line and were recognized as heroines (and often as villains) in their own time.

All this makes the Edinburgh Seven a natural writing topic, but amazingly, this rich subject has not been written about nearly in proportion to its dramatic worth or scientific significance. There are some good individual biographies of the main players out there, like Edythe Lutzker’s book on Edith Pechey (1973), Shirley Roberts’s on Sophia Jex-Blake (1993), or Jo Manton’s on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (2018) as well as some solid general histories covering women’s struggle for medical education in the nineteenth century, including Olivia Campbell’s very successful Women in White Coats (2021). But until just this year a standalone account of the Seven has not been available, which has been a frustrating thing for teachers like me who want a book with maximum dramatic impact to get students fired up about studying women’s medical history.

All of which is to say that we have needed a book focused solely on the Edinburgh Seven for a while now, and I am guessing that few people were as excited as I to see Pen & Sword’s announcement of just such a volume, authored by Janey Jones, to be published in 2023. One of the pitfalls for a book about the Seven is the tendency to make it just The Sophia Jex-Blake Story - she is the most passionate, dramatic, out-spoken character, the ring-leader of the troupe, its legal strategist and primary financier, and it would be tempting and easy to simply tell the whole tale from the perspective of her personal struggles and solutions. I was therefore heartened to see that Jones starts her book with separate portraits of each of the Seven, to get us acquainted with them and their reasons for seeking a medical education, and that throughout the book she checks regularly in with Jex-Blake’s two primary lieutenants in the struggle for education, Isabel Thorne, and Edith Pechey.

Jones has a style that conveys her excitement for, and inspiration by, her topic, and through her prose she tells you the story like an epic poet of old, with lines and interjections that bring her personality as storyteller to the fore. It’s a choice that people seeking a dry accounting of the E7 might find distracting, but for me, whose main interest is to find books that can connect with students who have a million other things clamoring for their attention, and who respond to genuine enthusiasm and passion above all else, her voice is exactly what I’m looking for, and when I return to my classroom in the Fall, hers is one of the first books I’ll be putting on the Lending Library shelves.

Of course, the story of the Edinburgh Seven is about much more than just those seven individual figures, and throughout the book Jones treats us to accounts about the history of the University of Edinburgh, of nursing and midwifery in England and Europe, of the Scottish legal system of the era, and of figures connected to the struggles of the E7, like Robert Christison (their primary adversary), Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Elizabeth Blackwell, such that, even if you think you know the story of the E7 backwards and forwards, there will still be things for you to learn in Jones’s book that add extra context and texture to the tale which serve to amplify Jex-Blake’s accomplishments.

Putting on my editor’s cap, the one thing I would do for a second edition of The Edinburgh Seven would be to tinker with the order of the chapters. Chapters 17-20 and 22-25 contain interesting information about the background of women in medicine, the city of Edinburgh, and the history of the University of Edinburgh, that it would be good to know as context before going into the main story of the Edinburgh Seven, so in my ideal world those would be between the portraits of the Seven and the start of their mission. Granted, that would delay our entry into the drama of their struggle, but I think it would make us better able to appreciate what they were up against, and why they acted as they did, which would make the story that much more engaging when we get to it.

Overall, if you want a lively and expressive account of one of science’s most dramatic and engaging episodes, that is precisely what you will get with Janey Jones’s account of the Edinburgh Seven. She tells us the stories of heroes of a different kind, ones who changed the shape of a nation and its institutions armed with nothing more than their wits, intelligence, and knowledge of the justness of their cause, and who ultimately stood triumphant in defeat, and resurrected in our historical esteem.

If your local bookshop doesn't carry it, you can order The Edinburgh Seven from the Pen & Sword Books website here, or from Amazon here (US) and here (UK).


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